If there’s a reason Penny Robinson cares so much about Chilliwack’s addicts, it’s because she was one, she had her life saved by one and then she watched him die.
Every time someone shows up at the harm-reduction bus she operates on behalf of Chilliwack Addiction and Prevention Services (CAPS), she welcomes them with a smile and a healthy dose of compassion.
She knows the darkness they face and she knows there’s light inside all of them.
It may be buried miles deep under a heap of hurt, but it’s there and Penny believes no one is beyond redemption.
She was 18 years old and a mother of three as she watched the father of her children start down the drug-addiction road that eventually led to his death. He was a gang member pulling in good money as a cook at a really nice Vancouver hotel.
Penny was a rebellious teenager attracted to danger, going into the city to visit him on weekends.
He started using cocaine, then dealing cocaine, and when he was caught and sent to jail he came out a heroin addict.
“At that time I knew nothing about resources or addictions or anything like that, and I assumed if I said, ‘Stop it,’ then he’d stop it,” says Penny, who became a teenage mother with two of his children. “I said, ‘Hey. Stop it right now or I’m going to break up with you.’”
“Well that means nothing to someone who’s hooked on drugs.”
Penny’s own slide into addiction was brief but powerful.
She was into cocaine and crack for three months, burning through her savings and getting high in a girlfriend’s bathroom.
“It seemed so harmless in the beginning, so easy to go down that path because everyone thinks they can do just a little bit,” Penny recalls. “Then you’re addicted.”
“But one night my babies’ daddy showed up at my door and said, ‘I’m a drug addict and you can’t be too because someone has to raise our kids. I scratched his face and tried the whole sheet-rope-out-the-window, doing everything I could to get out of that house, but he wouldn’t let me. That’s one thing I appreciate him for.”
Had she continued, Penny knows she would have lost her children and perhaps much more.
“At the time I was angry because he’d never been there for me and I thought he was trying to control me and keep me away from my friends,” she says. “But I can say now that it’s the best thing he ever did for me.”
After 19 years of misery, the drugs finished him off last year.
She tried to help him right up to the end.
“He came from a good family and had lots of people try to help him, but you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves,” she says. “If I could go back to when he started, with what I know now, maybe I could have done something. But over time drugs turn your mind to mush and do permanent damage.”
“That’s where he was.”
She thinks about him often when she’s on the bus. Every troubled person is a reminder and a motivator.
They show up with dirty needles and exchange them for clean ones. The bus houses everything they need to inject safely, including sterile water, rubber bands, filters and alcohol wipes.
Visiting nurses perform a variety of tests (pregnancy and HIV for example) in a discreet setting and Penny’s visitors can grab a handful of condoms as they leave.
If that’s all she did, she’d be providing a valuable service.
But Penny, who apprenticed under supervisor Kim Lloyd, believes she does so much more.
“It would be hard coming in here and just giving out needles,” she admits. “But that’s not what this is about. It’s not what I want it to be about.”
“Drug addiction, to me, is always a band-aid for something else like rape or child molestation or some other form of trauma, so with each person I’m trying to figure out why they started and what they’re covering up.”
“If I can get them to open up, then I can start talking to them about recovery.”
Some people come in, grab whatever they need as quickly as they can and disappear as fast as they came. Penny’s heart breaks for them.
Others are willing, even eager to talk, though it may take days, weeks or months to get to their truth.
“Nobody’s going to tell you everything right away, so it’s building a relationship,” Penny says. “I remember their names when they come in. I offer them candy and bring bottles of water. It seems so simple, but whether it’s because of a candy bar or a new pair of socks, you start that relationship slowly.”
“People want to tell you stuff and they do open up. But it has to come from them.”
Penny works hard to make the bus feel like a safe zone.
It is most frequently parked in the lot behind the old Empress Hotel site.
She maintains a cordial relationship with police, who understand the value of the needle exchange and keep their distance.
The only ID she requires is a birth-date.
Penny’s biggest asset is her ability to withhold judgment. Whether her visitor is clean and sober or strung out on heroin, they deal with the same person.
Sure, there are times when she feels like shaking them and yelling, ‘Why are you doing this to yourself?!’
But she holds back.
“People who’ve never had an addict in their life, all they see is a dirty crack-head,” she says. “I knew my baby’s father when he wasn’t an addict, so I got to see the good person. Whoever it is, I always try to see the good person who’s still in there.”
That doesn’t mean Penny won’t challenge them.
As she gets to know her visitors and they get to know her, she pushes. Her personality is straightforward to the point of bluntness. One afternoon a man tells her the drugs he’s been mixing up with murky water from a rain puddle are turning out chunky.
“And you’re still injecting it?” she asks before calmly telling him that’s an extremely dumb thing to do.
Another brags that he just ripped off some merchandise from the Bibles for Missions Thrift Store. Inwardly she tears her hair out with frustration, but he’d never know it.
“Instead of stealing from them, why don’t you offer to clean their parking lot,” she suggests.
“I can say stuff, but I say it in a nice enough way that I’m not degrading them,” Penny explains. “Hopefully I’m opening their eyes a bit.”
“I do get frustrated and I do get angry and I do cry. But my job isn’t to yell at them.”
Penny isn’t the biggest woman.
She’s short with a slight build and even though she presents a tough front to the world there are moments when this job scares her. Two weeks ago she had a young girl take a swing at her and sometimes she closes the door and speaks to someone through a window.
Though her visitors are rarely violent they are… unpredictable.
“I’ve had people in psychosis who come in here, hit the floor and want me to protect them because all these people are coming after them,” she says. “I see outside and there’s no one there but they’ll peek out the window and say, ‘There they are right there!’”
“So it’s calming them down, but you have to realize that whatever they’re going through in that moment, they believe it.”
“Telling them they’re crazy or high, that’s not going to help them so you just work through it with them because they will come down at some point.”
The horrible stories she hears, the relapses she sees, the constant pain and suffering – there isn’t a day that goes by that Penny doesn’t feel she could have, should have, done more.
“It does overwhelm me at times and it does follow me home at night,” she says. “It’s a constant fight between me and my partner because he says he should go be a drug addict because ‘Homeless people get more attention from you than I do.’”
“If I have a girl in my bus crying and saying she wants to kill herself, how do I not think about that when I go to bed that night?”
But in the darkness there is light.
There are people who want help, and she helps them get it. Something she says – something she does – steers them in the right direction and their lives change.
They get a job. They get a home. They kick an addiction. They get their kids back.
They visit her to say thanks.
“I see lots of moments of hope,” Penny says. “There’s two people I’ve seen just today who’ve been off drugs for a couple months, and they come back to see me because of that relationship. They hug me and they’re happy and that’s where the reward is in this job.
“Just knowing that sometimes I make a difference.”
Additional stories in this series:
Part 1: The long way home