Not so long ago, Mannix Leung was sleeping rough under the Vancouver viaducts, the two looming, bridge-like structures that funnel traffic between the downtown and the east side of the city. Thousands of people would travel back and forth each day overhead, but nobody seemed to see him.
“I felt I was hidden from the world,” he says now. “I could do my drugs there and be out of sight.”
Now Mr. Leung looks for people others may not see.
“My perspective is I don’t see them as addicts. I see them as somebody’s brother. Somebody’s sister. Somebody’s uncle. I know what they’re going through,” he says.
His story is one of poverty, family breakdown and years of drug-related crime.
It also involves a Salvation Army treatment program and Vancouver’s Downtown Community Court. When it opened in 2008, it pioneered an approach to tackle the cycle of drug use, addiction and crime by providing legal, health and social services with an eye to addressing the underlying causes of criminal activity.
Mr. Leung, 45, was an early client, making his first appearance in October, 2008, on a charge of theft under $5,000. A judge found him guilty and sentenced him to 18 days in jail.
It was not his first offence and would not be his last.
B.C.’s online court records system lists more than 80 files under Mr. Leung’s name. They include dozens of probation breaches and “theft unders” – shorthand for the $5,000 threshold in the Criminal Code that moves the maximum jail time for an offence from two years to 10.
The earliest file is dated June 30, 1998. The charges pile up every year thereafter.
On Sept. 17, 2010, they stop.
A week earlier, when he was in the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in one of his many stints in jail, his probation officer came to see him. The news was bad: His father had died of a heart attack.
That was a turning point. Mr. Leung was devastated that he hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye and that his father had died without knowing if his son would ever overcome his addictions.
A week later, Mr. Leung was back in Downtown Community Court on yet another theft under. He received a conditional sentence and probation order, both for six months.
He hasn’t been back since – except as an observer and as a speaker at its 10th anniversary celebration.
Ask him how he wound up under the viaducts and Mr. Leung starts his tale in Stonewall, Man., where his parents, immigrants from Hong Kong, had a Chinese restaurant. They lost the business in a fire, an accident that pitched the family into poverty when Mr. Leung was 12.
The family moved to Los Angeles, where they had relatives. He the loved beaches and skateboarding but felt out of place, as he had in Manitoba.
His father worked long, grinding hours in restaurant jobs. His mother, who didn’t speak much English, struggled to adapt. The couple fought. A plan to pursue U.S. citizenship fell through and the family moved back to Vancouver after Mr. Leung finished high school.
His mother returned to Hong Kong. There were a handful of letters, then silence.
The family was broken, but nobody spoke about it. When Mr. Leung asked his father about her, he told him to grow up and move on. Mr. Leung, named after the tough-guy detective of a 1970s television show, stopped asking.
He started using drugs. They made him feel better.
“When I look back on my life, I see I was searching – searching for outside comfort,” he says.
He started with marijuana and progressed to cocaine and then heroin. Soon, he was injecting drugs regularly, stealing and dealing to support his habit. He kept in sporadic contact with his father. Years passed in a fog.
During one of his appearances at Downtown Community Court, B.C. Justice Thomas Gove, one of the court’s founders, told Mr. Leung he had potential.
“That hit me hard,” Mr. Leung says. “It planted a seed in me.”
Justice Gove remembers the encounter.
“I believe a lot of people we see … really have been put down by persons of authority. And sometimes they need someone to give them an encouraging word,” he says.
After his father’s death, Mr. Leung’s probation officer found him a spot at the Salvation Army Vancouver Harbour Light. He’d been in programs before, but this one clicked. He stayed for 13 months.
He volunteered, progressing from washing dishes to doing Christmas kettle drives. On one occasion, he realized the kettle station was set up in a mall in which he used to shoplift. He kept ringing the bell.
In 2010, he made his first trip to Camp Sunrise, a Salvation Army site near Gibsons, B.C., that has operated since 1925.
It was a revelation.
“It showed me there is life outside the Downtown Eastside,” he recalls. “I’m out in the wilderness, in nature, with friends, with people I met in here. I thought, ‘This is what life could be for me. Life could be good.’ ”
He’s been back every year since, now as the veteran who teaches newcomers how to paddle a canoe.
He has written to and visited businesses where he used to shoplift. He has sought out security guards who once had pictures of him in their break rooms. Keep doing what you’re doing, they tell him.
He has a job as an intake and shelter worker at Harbour Light, where a tight-knit staff includes other people in recovery. He lives in a rented apartment outside the Downtown Eastside.
He likes his job at Harbour Light and plans to keep working there. He sees it as part of making amends.
“My heart is here," he says. "Harbour Light saved me. It gave me a place I was able to find myself.”
One day, he hopes to go to L.A. to visit the cemetery where his father is buried.
He has written letters to him, too.