Calgary

Desperate mom brings daughter to CTrain station to buy drugs; here's what she learned

Calgary is facing an opioid crisis and drug use is now common at train stations. So why are people choosing transit to use?

'It's warm. Your friends are there. You can hang out. You can find what you need.'

Mother details what it was like watching her daughter look for drugs on Calgary transit

2 months ago
Duration 5:24
A Calgary mother came forward to share her story as part of CBC Calgary's focus on transit security.

First they found a phone number on a bus bench at Banff Trail station in Calgary. 

Then — following instructions from that phone call — Vanessa Redmond drove her daughter to Lion's Park Station and let her out. Soon she was watching her adult daughter smoke drugs on the platform, metres away from another mother and her young child.

It was a shock. A heartache. An eye-opening experience she will never forget. 

"They were all there hanging out, looking for each other — she was looking for drugs, and as soon as she walked to the shelter she found them right away," Redmond said, describing the community of addiction and support her daughter sought on Calgary Transit when she needed it.

"I was literally looking around thinking, 'This can't be happening. There's other people here. There's cameras. Are you not worried about when the train pulls up?' Nobody (in that group) seemed to be affected by it."

Redmond came forward to share her story as part of CBC Calgary's focus on transit security.

Calgary is facing an opioid crisis and drug use is now common at stations up and down the line. In addition to the heartache it causes family, friends and those addicted, Calgarians tell CBC it's driving people away from using critical transportation infrastructure.

People even smoke and inject in CTrain cars, according to the hundreds of Calgary residents who responded when CBC Calgary asked last week.

'I see it from both sides'

So why are people choosing transit stations to use?

For Redmond's daughter, it was the easiest place to access what she needed. She had been at the Calgary Remand Centre. When her mom picked her up, it had been a long time since she had any drugs in her system.

Redmond worried that if her daughter couldn't find drugs, she wouldn't be able to keep her home through the night in order to bring her to a detox centre the next morning.

"Why exactly is it on the trains? From what I've seen and the conversations I've had with my own daughter, I think it's easy to find your friends. You go to one stop and if you don't see what you're looking for, you just keep on going," said Redmond. 

"It's warm. Your friends are there. You can hang out. You can find what you need."

WATCH | An outreach manager at Alpha House explains why some vulnerable populations gravitate toward transit

Alpha House says people use transit to escape danger on Calgary streets

2 months ago
Duration 2:47
It was heart-wrenching for a mother to see her daughter's lifestyle in spite of agencies trying to help.

Redmond takes transit — she sees others using drugs and is scared to be there, she says. 

"It's terrifying and yet one of those terrifying individuals is my daughter," she said. "Which is also why I look at this differently. I see it from both sides. I have such compassion for these vulnerable individuals … I've seen a lot of compassion within that community for each other. They do look out for each other."

The transit stations were warm and open during most of the pandemic, when many other public places were closed. It's a location that's monitored, so an overdose is more likely to be caught. Plus, you can smoke at a transit station — at the one supervised consumption site in Calgary, people can only inject. 

And it's safer for people worried about the risks of using alone in less occupied public spaces, says Tamara Higgins, an outreach manager at detox centre Alpha House.

Her team works with many people sleeping rough and struggling with addictions. "They … come to the train stations because they have video surveillance. There are peace officers present."

'Unpredictable'

The Calgary Fire Department tracks overdoses in the city, and a heat map shows the vast majority happen along the train line. They were called for suspected drug overdose more than 2,000 times this year, just from January through May — and that's just the fire department. 

Police don't track overdoses. They track crime, especially assaults, theft and threats, which have also been increasing, whether or not there's a link to drug use.

These maps show overdose locations as attended by the Calgary Fire Department in 2021 (left) and 2022 (right). (City of Calgary)

All of it creates an unpredictable environment. Transit riders talk about being constantly on edge, carrying their keys to be used as weapons, preparing themselves psychologically before heading out each day.

Calgary residents texting with CBC Calgary have said they drive instead, if possible, or they simply go out less. Some feel trapped on transit.

"I've been riding the train for 20 to 25 years and that's the first time I really felt unsafe," said Kathy Austin, who can't drive herself because she's blind.

It's been particularly bad since last winter and shelters are often full of people smoking or injecting drugs, she said. She would go in to get warm, and then realize other people were smoking something. 

It's scary, she said. "Perhaps some of these people could be unpredictable."

What are the solutions?

When asked about solutions to the security problem on trains, many transit riders say it's both a train problem and a large social issue. It needs multiple solutions.

As for Redmond, her daughter was clean for three months. Now she's struggling with addiction again. Redmond doesn't want to share her name publicly.

The solution she'd like to see Alberta tackle first is to increase detox centres.

"You can't go into a rehab facility unless you do detox first and those are very limited. You're lining up and you're going in case-by-case. A lot of times, people are getting turned away," she said. 

"Unfortunately, that could be the one day that you're going to take the help and make that decision. And then you're sent back away, and it's devastating to see."

As for the current transit situation — maybe increased visibility can finally lead to change, Redmond said. 

"If enough people can change their perception … sit down and have conversations with groups that can make change … that can get us more mental health facilities, get us more detox centres."

Transit riders are scared just trying to get to work, she said. But also, "that is someone's loved one, those people in that bus stop may not necessarily want to be there. And those people are also very, very loved."


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to safety on Calgary Transit. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at lucie.edwardson@cbc.ca

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