The name of the woman in this story has been changed to protect her identity.
Hurt. Confused. Lost. Scared.
Words that could easily be applied to most of Chilliwack’s homeless or near-homeless population.
But not Ashley.
If the sex-trade worker is any of those things, she hides it well behind a wall of toughness.
She is not an old man living in the woods. She isn’t a frail woman foraging for pop cans and she’s not a frightened teenager.
She is a survivor, and the one word that describes her best is hardened.
Hardened to the things she does. Hardened to what you think about the things she does.
“You think I was a little girl who grew up saying I wanted to be a hooker and sell my body?” she says defiantly. “No, but people treat you like that. They look down their nose at you like you’re the scum on the bottom of their shoe.”
“I would rather sell myself than steal your wallet, so walk a mile in my shoes before you judge me.”
Life on the streets has molded Ashley into a woman who is cynical and suspicious with rhino-thick skin.
But she wasn’t always this way.
The story of how Ashley became homeless is too long to convey here, and reads like a soap opera crammed with lies, conspiracies and betrayal.
If you take her at her word, her life unraveled in the blink of an eye and she remembers her first night outside like it was yesterday.
“It was one of the first winter nights we had here where it was raining and then it went below zero and boy was I naive,” she says. “I was freezing cold and soaking wet, without a change of clothes or blanket or umbrella. Nothing.”
“I’ve never been so destitute, because no matter what I tried to do there was no place to go.”
Ashley spent that night outside a vacant building, sheltered by an overhang and some trees, using a jacket as a pillow.
“I huddled up, cried my eyes out and almost froze to death,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know that you sleep on cardboard so you don’t get a cold in your kidneys.”
She says she spent five months on the streets and has no idea how she didn’t die out there.
“One night I tried to sleep in an apartment stairwell, but I got kicked out of there,” Ashley says. “I only had a little coat and sweater with me because I wasn’t expecting it to get colder, but it did.”
“I hadn’t slept for about five days because I was so worried someone might steal my stuff, so when I ended up outside Multi-Pack Foods on Nowell I was just exhausted. I sat down to rest for a moment and fell asleep.”
Someone found her there the next morning.
“I was frozen like a popsicle, and a nice guy let me sleep in his car and brought me coffee to warm me up, and I’m thankful to this day because I should have died.”
Ashley says she tried to find work and shelter, but as soon as potential employers/landlords heard she was homeless, the door slammed shut.
So she did what she had to do.
“I hadn’t eaten in five days, I was crying and didn’t know what to do,” Ashley says. “I looked up the road and there was a young girl doing it (walking the stroll).”
“I thought, ‘Well what’s she got that I don’t?”
“So I cleaned myself up and found out how easy it is to make $100 in an hour.”
Easy and dangerous, though Ashley’s thoughts on the profession might not match your own.
For starters, she says the majority of men seeking out sexual services aren’t perverts and deviants.
Most are just lonely.
“The first car I got into, I was so nervous and the guy was so kind,” she remembers. “He said, ‘I haven’t seen you out there before’ and I said, ‘I’m going to be honest with you. This is my first time. I’m hungry and this is all I’ve got left.’”
Ashley has since come to view it in a more practical light.
This is her job.
“I’m lucky I can define it that way and I didn’t know I could turn myself off until I did,” she says. “No emotion. No nothing. It’s a means to an end.”
“I have emotions and feelings like everybody else, but I can go through the motions and have my head somewhere else. And truth be told, I trust the men I date more than anyone I’ve met on the street, because they don’t rip me off.”
Ashley claims she’s never had a bad date, “knock on wood.”
She’s never been beaten up and no one’s ever refused to pay her.
She says that’s because she’s professional, and this is where she says something that will be unpopular.
“If you hear horror stories from a hooker with a drug habit who had a date do something to her, it’s because she’s done something first,” Ashley says, her eyes intense and her voice rising. “I haven’t had a bad date because I’m not stupid.”
“I hear all the horror stories from guys who see me after seeing those other girls.”
“I’ve heard about a girl giving a BJ and emptying his wallet while she’s doing it!”
In Ashley’s mind, it is understandable if not excusable if a man retaliates.
“Guys don’t forget that and he sees the girl that ripped him off, what do you think he’s going to do?” she asks. “And she don’t remember she ripped him off because she rips everybody off.”
“They don’t know who they did and didn’t (rip off), so they get in the car not even knowing the guy is going to smack them.”
Ashley says she gives her dates three pieces of free advice.
Never pay until you’re at the place where you’re going to ‘do the deed.’
Never bring more (money) than you’re willing to spend/lose and think with the brain on top of your shoulders and not between your legs.
“The other girls have the nerve to ask why my dates only go to me and not them,” she says. “My dates will tell them, ‘She never steals from me. She never lies to me and she always does what she says she’s going to do.’”
“I live by that and have repeat customers because of it.”
Ashley says she has no friends.
The only person she trusts in Chilliwack is a laundry-mat worker who will watch over her stuff. Otherwise, she believes she’s surrounded by thieves and scoundrels.
“You learn that things don’t mean much because as soon as you get something it’s gone and the only thing is important is your survival,” she admits. “It’s very lonely.”
That feeling of isolation is a big reason why Ashley is a drug addict.
A woman who runs a harm-reduction bus in Chilliwack said that drug use is a band-aid for something else.
In Ashley’s case, it numbs her to the reality of what her life has become. She never dreamed of walking the Nowell Street stroll at night looking for a ‘date.’
“I’ve tried to walk in traffic, but when you want them to hit you they never do,” she says in a way where you can’t tell if she’s serious or not.
“The drugs make it so I don’t have to think about things I probably should be thinking about and I don’t have to deal with feelings I don’t want to deal with, so I don’t want to quit.”
Ashley says she doesn’t want to die. Not today.
She wakes up in the morning looking for something good, something that tells her there may be a better tomorrow. For all her talk about being rough and tough, hardened by the fight and trusting no one, she softens for the tiniest moment as she heads home to get ready for work.
“There are people from one of the churches who walk around and give out bags of candy and blessings to the women on the street,” she says with a smile. “Sometimes, chatting with them and hearing them say ‘I love you’ is all you need to hear to survive another day.”
Additional stories in this series:
Part 1: The long way home