“London’s Underground – Part 1 – Friday Night Lights”

(I encourage readers to first check out the Prologue to this series)

Its 5pm on Friday in London.  On this warm, beautiful evening without a cloud in the sky, I met up with my friend Jack, a tall, fit, recently-retired, 35-year veteran of the London Police Service, who in his last tour of duty spent five years on foot, patrolling the downtown.  When I mentioned to Jack my intent to shed light on the problem and proudly call my post ‘Friday Night Lights’, he promptly suggested something much broader, because what I was about to see happens every night in London.

Before continuing, I should point out for the balance of this post that I have purposely modified the names, background and locations of all the people I plan to introduce to you, so as to protect their identities.  However, while the names and locations have been changed, the stories I tell on their behalf are very real.

Jack and I met at the entrance to Market Lane next to Covent Garden Market.  With the exception of one passerby carrying a large duffle bag full of what I am told is likely his lifetime of belongings, the Lane is empty and actually looks pretty clean.  However, Jack then invited me to take a closer look in the shrubs that run along the wall facing Fanshawe College’s Centre for Digital Arts. There, laying amidst hundreds of cigarette butts, and some human feces was my first exposure to a small nest of needles, laying there used and exposed next to their now empty packages.

As we walked down Market Lane, we ran into a former colleague of Jack’s and current member of the London Police bike patrol unit, a constable by the name of Jerry.  Jerry introduced himself to me and then shared with us that he was just returning from processing a young woman by the name of Angie, who had been caught breaking into cars in a nearby parking lot to steal purses and other belongings.  Angie was also caught with the IDs of three other victims of break-ins from earlier that day.  She was high, hungry and despondent, and had broken into the cars to steal money so that she could feed her addiction.  I asked Jerry if Angie would do any jail time.  He replied not much if at all.  When I asked why, he responded “Our system has nowhere to put them”.

We continued up Market Lane and then headed east along Dundas, until we reached Richmond, where six young teens stood huddled in a circle, trying to shield prying eyes from what Jack told me was a drug deal in progress.  The teens noticed us taking note of their activity, but paid us little concern knowing that theirs is one of many such exchanges taking place this evening all over the city with little risk of consequence.

Shortly after crossing Richmond, Jack steered me into an alley at the back of the store block that fronts Richmond.  Even in the early evening, the area is dark and dingy, and covered in graffiti. Strewn in almost every corner are the remnants of used drug paraphernalia.   Jack tells me that the store owners and city workers do their best trying to keep the area clean, but their endless efforts are often to no avail.  There are just too many members of the Underground that need a safe place to hang out, dry out and/or conduct their business.  Up the alley from where we are, at the edge of the sidewalk on King, a gaunt man of about 40-years old, props himself up against a building to help hold himself up while he urinates.  Our presence does little to dissuade him and he returns to his friends who are all having some difficulty standing while hanging out near the corner of King and Richmond.

After circling back to Market Lane, Jack took me to an area behind a set of railway tracks next to a now vacant restaurant, just metres from a high-end condo and office tower.  There, nestled between the tracks and the ivy-covered fence, are two makeshift campsites – a popular hangout for members of the Underground seeking shelter from an unwelcoming society.  The campsites are surrounded by trash including old blankets, food wrappers, empty beer bottles and countless used needles.  The sites are vacant right now, but Jack tells me that in a couple of hours, it will be standing room only as the Underground once again seeks refuge from a lonely world.

Upon our return to our vehicle, we ran into Kevin, a restaurant owner in the downtown, who recognized me from the Police Board and took some interest in our walkabout.  After sharing the purpose of our tour, Kevin injects some of his own frustrations with things like: nightly harassment of customers and employees, drug litter mindlessly tossed around his establishment, addicts passed out in his doorway, a police service that when called upon has few options available to them, and a growing sense of helplessness that has him questioning the viability of his business.  Sadly, neither Jack nor I could offer him much in the way of assurances that the situation will get better – a frustration that still bothers me as I write this blog.

Jack then took me to a park that backs onto some stately homes along a well-to-do road in old north.  There, just off the bike path, Jack led me along a worn, man-made walking path along the tree line leading up to the Thames River.  Jack considers this the Underground’s own roadway, a route that takes drug users to the very secluded embankment along the Thames.  There we came across another couple of campsites, this time with remnants of drug wrappers, food and a used fire pit.  Jack tells me that this often serves as the make-shift summer residence for many Underground members.  When I asked where they hung out during the winter, Jack said they move back into the core and often find refuge in ATM kiosks and underground parking garages.  Jack added that unless there is a complaint, the cops generally leave these campsites alone, affording the Underground a quiet place where they can live hidden from the rest of us.

To my surprise, our next stop was the city’s splash pad near the Forks of the Thames, and specifically, the small pavilion that overlooks the facility.  According to Jack, the small pavilion that once housed picnic tables for family use, now sits empty as the area has become a haven for the Underground.   What I found interesting about this spot, was that below the pavilion is a set of washrooms, and next to the washrooms, not 30 metres from the splash pad, sits a needle recovery receptacle.   What’s more, parked next to the needle recovery receptacle sits Terry, one of a handful of Commissioners retained by the City to keep an eye on the facilities during the daylight hours.  Terry’s job is to ensure that Underground members who frequent the pad, and specifically the washrooms, do so in a manner that is respectful of the families using the facilities.  It is hard to believe and really quite telling that one of the city’s marquee downtown public assets requires this level of full-time security to be enjoyed.

Our final stop took us to a serene fishing spot along the river behind the Hydro yards. Another needle recovery receptacle greeted our entrance to the embankment leading to the river, where we found several people fishing on both sides of the river.  On a ridge on the south side we found a group of pretty weathered 20-somethings fishing, washing clothes and drinking.  Below them was two other young adults, with a young boy playing in the embankment sand.  On the north side, I met George and Larry, two avid fishermen who frequent this spot almost daily.  In front of George lay a half-filled garbage bag that he brought with him two days prior.  Apparently, George, in a gesture of true civic-mindedness, routinely brings and removes the garbage bag so that addicts have a place to toss their used needles when finished with their injections.  He claims that he regularly retrieves 20-30 used needles every day.  I asked him why he takes it upon himself to remove this toxic trash. George points to the young boy across the river playing in the sand and replies “That’s why.”

Needless to say, as I drove home I could not help but repeatedly ask myself the following questions: What is being done to help our Underground? By extension, what is being done to help our entire downtown? Why is it not working?

Also today – London’s Underground – Prologue.

Next week – The Size of our Underground.