Somewhere Downtown

Somewhere DT 2The slam of car door drew my attention to a parked taxi, as I navigated the slick streets on a rainy Vancouver night.  As the cab sped away, it’s fare, a young man and two young women, disappeared into the darkened doorway of a strip club.  With my side window down to reduce the glare, there was no question, one of the two girls was Michelle.

Her picture was on the front page of Sunday’s Vancouver Sun.  The paper said, police suspected “foul play” in the disappearance of the 14 year old.

It happened after a Friday night youth event in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey. Michelle promised to go straight home. Instead, she boarded the Sky Train in search of a little fun. It wasn’t long before she found it. In a foolish move, she accepted an invitation to party with three young men. They were friendly and had a bottle of alcohol. To Michelle, it seemed harmless enough.

When the bottle was empty they delivered her to another team at a house in New Westminster. Here, older men would alternately force drugs upon her, and then themselves. She was never left alone. Given no food and allowed no sleep; threatened with harm should she try leaving.

When her mother contacted me the morning after Michelle’s disappearance, my heart sank. I was the girl’s youth leader and one of the last people to see her. I cleared my calendar to search for her.  I began by making phone calls and sending emails to those who I knew would rally to pray for a missing girl.

As far as where to search, I had little to go on.  I spent considerable time in Surrey and New West. I even got a far as Burnaby.  I soon realized, mine were not the only “Missing Girl” posters. There we others, the same age as Michelle, that had vanished.  My heart broke.

As the weekend passed, I was no further ahead. But around the supper hour on Tuesday, Michelle managed to get a moment on a pay phone. She called a friend, who was a regular at my drop-in centre. The news, that she was “somewhere downtown”, quickly got back to me.  I picked up a volunteer and headed into Vancouver.

Having no idea where to start, I began by driving along the streets of the lower east side. I was taken aback by the number of girls working the street corners: several dozen in a few city blocks!  Knowing that the odds of finding the girl were slim, after two hours of searching, I started wondering if we should just go home. But I still had half a tank of fuel, so I kept driving.

Somewhere DT 1Around midnight, a wrong turn led us into the heart of downtown where the streets were brighter and busier.  As I guided my Jeep along the seemingly endless roadways, I began to lament that “somewhere downtown” meant Michelle could be ANYWHERE downtown.

As I charted my exit from that area, something compelled me turn left; to take another pass along Seymour.  But the urge to turn the steering wheel seemed strange.  I second guessed myself.  Perhaps my guilt was getting to me; that a more vigilant youth leader would have prevented Michelle from going missing in the first place.  Clearly, I just wanted to fix this.

It was irrational that had come downtown at all.  But I did it because, hours earlier, I had experienced the same kind of feeling.  It was like a still small voice whispering to me, “Go bring her home.”  So in spite of all my rationalizing, I, again, did what I felt I needed to do.  I turned left.  Within moments, Michelle was brought out of that taxi cab on Seymour Street.  That’s how I ended up there; and at just the right time, to see her.

When the trio entered the strip club, they had no idea they had been spotted.  My helper called for police while I found the best place to park.  Now, standing across the street from the club, there was nothing to do but wait for law enforcement.

Ten minutes passed. Nothing.  Then, as quickly as the three entered the building, they were back on the sidewalk. I would learn later that inside the building they had joined an older man at a table in the show lounge.  He was simply referred to as “The Boss”.  But soon, bar staff insisted Michelle would have to leave. The Boss, told the younger man to take the girls outside, saying, “There’s another place that will let us in with the kid. Wait for me; I’ll be out in a minute.”

Immediately, we made our move.  I can’t say I was as confident as I might have appeared.  Though the man cradling our treasure was young, he was very large.  Surprisingly, that there was no opposition, as we snatched Michelle from the arms that held her.  Alarmed, the young man jumped back, allowing us to escort Michelle walked to my vehicle.

Within a few blocks I was able to flag down a police cruiser.  We waited while they raced over to the club.  They were too late.

Michelle PastelMichelle wouldn’t accept medical treatment but agreed to an interview with the officers. After ninety minutes at police headquarters, the detectives re-emerged with Michelle.  They informed me Michelle’s captors were part of a sex trafficking ring suspected in the disappearance of other girls.  Police hadn’t been able to stop them.

“Within another day or two, she would have been gone,” he told me. “You’d have never seen her again.  You really got lucky, this time.”

“Luck,” I replied, “had nothing to do with it,” for I knew who was watching over this precious child.

This true story has been published, with Michelle’s permission, by Brine Books in 2014.  To keep the story brief, the important involvement of family members (Chris, Doug and others) has not been mentioned.

Dear Mr. MacKay


Dear Mr. MacKay

John Cassells,  March 18th, 2014

I salute all of you who took time over the past month to pen your input on prostitution legislation for the federal government (during the window of February 17th to March 17th).  Perhaps you, like many others, painstakingly researched the issues and, in the end, just made your best judgement call.  It really does come down that; a judgement call, because there is no perfect legal model to follow.  But, there certainly is a wrong one.  Legalization.  There is more than a sufficient body of international research, to draw a line between legal prostitution and sharp increases in violent exploitation of women and children.

The legal challenge (Bedford vs. Canada) to our prostitution laws never really was about safety.  Law Professor, Alan Young, who launched the challenge said this, of the violence, “We don’t know what will happen [if prostitution is legalized], but this isn’t about that.”  Our law makers, however, see a golden opportunity to address that violence.  Contrast Mr. Young’s assertion with Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s response, “Prostitution is a very corrosive part of what’s happening in society, and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Bedford case will require legislation to fill the gap.”

I invite you to read my response to Mr. MacKay’s invitation for input:



Dear Mr. MacKay,  I commend you in your stand against legalizing prostitution and thank you for your dedicated work to protect vulnerable adolescents and adults through new prostitution legislation.  Though the case at hand relates to laws for adults only, I include “adolescents” purposefully, and will say more about that.  Thanks too, for inviting input from the public.  You’ll see I’ve copied Peter Van Loan on this email; he is my Member of Parliament.

I’ve been a youth worker for more than 25 years.  In that time I’ve worked with countless girls and young women who were trafficked in the sex trade.  I’ve developed outreach programs and support systems for these young people, and successfully helped many leave the sex trade.  I have spoken about prostitution and human trafficking at a variety of functions and in the media.  I have also organized several such events.  I remain committed to those who are harmed by prostitution and it’s related crimes, and will continue to address such needs in my work.

The glaring problem with our prostitution laws is that buying sex has never been illegal.  Canadians like to think of themselves as a nation that upholds human rights and defends gender equality.  However, allowing Canadian men to gain intimate control of women’s bodies through financial leverage, is in stark contrast to this country’s core values.  That must be changed.

Prostitution is not just dangerous, it has a far reaching impact on the health and wellbeing of the prostitute.  Saying that prostitution is a victimless crime, is problematic because it’s profoundly harmful to the psyche.  Most prostitutes will suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Many will also develop serious physical health problems.

Adult prostitution is inseparable from the sex trafficking of minors.  While prostitution laws address the involvement of adults in prostitution, there is a serious concern with the inflow of youth into the adult sex industry.  This is because the sex trade is fueled by demand; and the highest demand is not for women, it’s for girls; children who are lured, controlled and perpetually violated.  The lack of accountability on men who buy sex in Canada has led to a huge industry in trafficking girls 13 -17 years old.  That number is in the 10’s of thousands, and each one of those numbers represents a young life destroyed by violence.  This issue goes far beyond moral ideals or political bent, it’s a humanitarian crisis, callously created by Canadian men.

In principle, I also support the criminalizing of selling sex.  I hold this view because I’ve seen that police intervention can be one of the most effective methods to provide options for those ensnared in the sex trade.  If selling sex is illegal, you also have an easy answer to the question to “living off the avails”; it should never be allowed.  My primary fear with prohibition of buying and selling sex, is that the legal system will punish those who are acting under duress or out of simple desperation.  The intent of the law would need to reserve punishment for the prostitutes who are selling sex by choice.  This would include a larger portion of male and transgender prostitutes, along with, as little as one in 10 female prostitutes.  I would support full prohibition on prostitution on these conditions:

  • The provinces and municipalities would generously participate in support services and court diversion programs to help women and children successfully exit the sex trade.
  • Clemency for prostitutes would not be dependent on testifying against traffickers or Johns, because this is often not a reasonable expectation because of mental condition.
  • Accountability would need to be placed on all jurisdictions to aggressively enforce laws pertaining to buyers (Johns) and traffickers/pimps.

If these measures cannot be reasonably achieved, I suggest looking to an abolitionist approach [or “Nordic Model,” which criminalizes the buying of sex and decriminalizes the selling of sex].

I like the results the Nordic model is getting in other countries and I’ve encouraged many hundreds of people to consider it’s merit.  That being said I do have some concerns.

  • We cannot expect optimum results from the Nordic Model unless we reform our welfare system.  I say this because inadequate welfare systems are a major precursor to prostitution in Canada.  Welfare in every region of Canada is inadequate, in that, 1) it doesn’t provide a livable wage, and 2) it systemically discourages recipients from seeking education and legal career opportunities.
  • Legalizing the selling of sex would presumably give the green light to operating common bawdy houses.  If that were the case, I fear that police investigations for minors and human trafficking victims could be considerably hampered because police access to these legal establishments could be more difficult to obtain.

If those concerns can be effectively addressed, then I consider the Nordic Model a viable option to full prohibition.

In closing, we absolutely must combat the demand for the flesh trade in Canada.  We are long overdue to stop the legal purchase of sex.  Mr. MacKay, you have a great opportunity to end the complicity of Parliament in the buying and degrading of vulnerable girls and women.  I will look forward, with great interest, to seeing what you are able to achieve on this matter.  Thank you for your diligent efforts to address injustice in our great nation.


John Cassells

Street Youth Specialist, SIM Canada

Arkenstone Founder & Canadian Street Dialogues Blogger

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Guerrilla Outreach



Maria Nndem / John Cassells

“Standing before me, both of us sobbing, Christina unfolded her story. She showed me her back. It was raw and bloody. She had been whipped with a dismantled wire hanger. Apparently that’s what happens when you don’t bring in enough cash. Christina was forced into prostitution by her own father.  She was ten years old.”

When I first heard this story, I wanted to believe it was fiction or, at least, in a faraway place.  My friend, Maria, was the one telling it.   I assumed she was telling me about a short term mission trip, and had some distance from this hell she had left behind.

Maria Nndem

Maria Nndem

19 year old Maria, in fact, was on something of a mission.  With no youth work experience, she, alone, blocked off three days to discover who Calgary’s street kinds were, and where they could be found.  Yes, Calgary!  10 year old Christina, was a Canadian girl!

Maria explains how she met Christina.  “A street kid named ‘Stretch’ took me to an abandoned building.  I found myself crawling through a broken basement window and being led through a series of hallways and doors. Finally, we reached the secret room. I gasped. There in front of me was a room stocked full of homeless people.  They were shockingly young, and there were so many of them!

Risky?  For sure.  Crazy?  Maybe.  But let’s look deeper.  In her persistence, Maria, who knew nothing of the streets, had discovered that lost kids were holed up in that abandoned building.  It was something that the local professionals needed to know, but somehow alluded them.  Why was it that Maria could find these kids?  Was it her willingness?  Commitment?  Freedom?

Knowing that there were street kids in her city that were not being reached, was not something that Maria could let go of.  That experience birthed in her a passion and purpose.  In the next two decades Maria would lead mobile outreach teams on the streets of Calgary, and change how that city’s hidden street youth were reached and cared for.  Of course, she learned to work more responsibly, but not at the expense of effectiveness.  It’s an outreach style that I affectionately call ‘guerrilla outreach’, and Maria is one of the best.

Mostly things are done in a more conservative fashion.  Mitigating risk is number one.  I’m all for that, but our concern for safety and wellbeing must also extend to those who are more vulnerable than ourselves.  ‘Best Practices’ , while helpful, can, and often do, prevent us from giving our ‘best’ for those who need it most.  Maria concedes that it’s easier, and safer, to “stay within the walls of an office.” It’s just that she never could.

When are you at your best?  For me, it might have been the day I cooked breakfast for a half dozen kids.  Yeah, I know; simple!  Lots of people do that every day!

I had a full kitchen at my office, and would have preferred to have the kids meet me there.  That wasn’t going to happen.  I knew this particular group struggled with addictions and was not eating well, or often.  It didn’t matter that they didn’t have bus fare, simply walking to the bus stop would have been a feat for the ones who were extremely emaciated and weak.  If I was going to serve breakfast to this group, I’d have to jimmy open the back door of the building and bang on #306, while balancing a box of groceries.  So that was it.  You can image that the college practicum students I brought with me on such excursions learned a lot!

Apartment 306 was a flop house.  Most of the kids I met there were homeless; staying a few days, at best.  On that particular day there was a couple of new ones.  A young man and a teenage girl.  One of the kids remarked that he had forgotten how good bacon and eggs taste.  As we sat around the table and talked, something changed.  They began to look at me with new eyes.  I stopped being their ‘worker’, and became a friend and guardian.  There was a new level of trust that came from meeting them in their place of need.  That day serves as a milestone for these young lives, who have gone on to experience restoration and success!

Guerrilla outreach involves a constant watch for new activities of street youth.  I have often put together ‘scouting teams’ specific to that purpose.  Even more importantly, guerrilla outreach maintains relationships with street youth who are ‘off the radar’.  Such tactics will connect you with the most damaged and hard to reach young people.  In my experience, it’s with this group that I’ve seen the greatest rates of recovery and reintegration, which underscores the importance of intentionality, on the part of the worker.

Never would I encourage outreach workers -staff or volunteers, to deviate from the appropriate protocols.  At the same time, it’s never appropriate when kids like Christina cease to be the priority.


Maria Nndem works with Calgary Youth Unlimited (YFC) in the role of People and Program Development Director.  Her focus is on developing young leaders who have the same heart for lost kids.

Confessions of an Outreach Worker

John Cassells  ||  On Youth Work

JC at Mic“Vegas.  Said she was going to Vegas.” Andrew answered between gulps of homemade soup.  “Buddy, with a big car, was buying her lunch from the first day she got down here.  She felt special.  She thought maybe he was going to help her get things sorted out.  She was what?  Eight, maybe nine days on the street…Can I get pair of socks? Wherever he took her, I hope she’s OK.”

Except that she was sleeping on Queen Street during the chilly nights of mid’ October, she looked like any other teenager.  She was nervous, when I approached.  Her clothing was still clean and the name on her volleyball team jacket matched the one she gave me.  “Jennifer”.  I saw her twice over the course of a week.  Then she was gone.

Street: 1,  John: 0

The bad news is, the street beats us more often than not.  But we don’t actually tell people that.  And sometimes we can’t even admit it to ourselves.  If a young person is to become homeless, it happens at 15 years old, on average -Jennifer’s age.  It troubles me to tell you that these same kids don’t usually connect, in a meaningful way, with street outreach workers until they’re at least 17.  In the first two years of being on the streets they are without appropriate support; repeatedly subjected to violence; not knowing who they can reach out to; not knowing who they can trust.  I’m not OK with that.

Jennifer wasn’t actually the first one I saw disappear.  There were a few before her.  Around the time she went off the radar, Kaitlyn resurfaced.  Like Jennifer, I had taken special note of Kaitlyn.  I knew that she was particularly vulnerable, and I worried for her safety.  Keeping an eye out for her was about all I could manage.  I had a program to run.  The responsibilities on my shoulders meant that I couldn’t be out on the street looking for lost kids every day, buying them lunch.  In the case of these two precious young people, somebody else did just that.

When Kaitlyn returned, she was different.  Her childlike innocence was gone -like when a young soldier returns home from war.  Kaitlyn barely knew me, so I was glad to get this much:  “I’ve been in Peterborough for the last year and a half.  I went there with my boyfriend.  Well, not really my boyfriend, as it turned out.  Lots happened -lots I don’t want to talk about.”

Like Kaitlyn, there’s lots I don’t want to talk about either.  In my newsletters, do I mention the ones I lost?  Not likely.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still believe that inspiring people is an important role of mine.  And I’ve got a hundred good news stories that do just that (PTL).  But with young lives hanging in the balance, every opportunity requires our very best.  Jennifer and Kaitlyn didn’t get my best, simply because I didn’t make time for them.  While I tripled the number of street youth my program served, I did little to increase my program’s capacity to respond effectively the urgent needs of individual kids.  Just running the thing, became all-consuming.  I don’t think I’m alone in this.  It seems to be the norm among outreach programs.  The busyness of the program and the appearance of success is all too often placed ahead of effectively helping the ones in the deepest need.

In the world of youth work, much has changed, and youth agencies across the country are struggling to stay effective.  Some are struggling to simply keeping their doors open.  The problem I brought up here, is one of many that we face.  What do you need to talk about?  I’d love to hear from you.

It’s my hope that Canadian Street Dialogs will be a safe place unpack some of those untold stories, and where we can wrestle with the hard questions.  It’s not actually meant as a place to confess our failures, but does provide an opportunity to honestly examine the challenges that lie before us.  Together, we will move forward, building on our successes, charting new routes that lead us past the obstacles and onto more of the good work we love to do.  That’s the purpose of Canadian Street Dialogues: candid discussions on reaching street involved youth.  Thanks for reading.