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Formerly Street-Involved Activist Awarded for Drug User and Sex Worker Advocacy

Kelly Rose Pflug-Back

Jun 24, 2014

For Arlene Pitts, harm reduction work is much more than a job: it is a matter of life and death. A long-time advocate for drug user and sex worker communities, Arlene brings a passion to her activism which comes from the lived experience of having watched the devastating impacts of poverty and street-involvement upon her loved ones. Arlene was presented with Toronto's Vital People Award last Wednesday at the CBC building, in acknowledgement of her work at St. Stephen’s Community House, where she has launched numerous programs geared towards sex workers and people who use drugs, including the sex workers' safer sex kit, and Acudetox programming.

The Vital People award, which is issued yearly, honours exceptional community leaders in the city and provides recipients with funds for training and development opportunities.

Arlene's experiences with addiction issues began at a young age, after her father fell from a carnival ride which left him disabled and eventually dependent on opiates. His drug use placed strain on both of Arlene's parents, who separated shortly before she left home. “I found my new family through becoming street involved.” Arlene told the Media Co-op. “I was homeless during the Harris/ Eves years. Many of my friends became locked up, passed away from preventable deaths, or became ill due to preventable diseases. I quickly began to see the correlation between policy and our lives.”

Arlene's life took another turn for the worse when her father fatally overdosed on the same night she was planning to surprise him after returning from travelling. “Unfortunately I arrived too late. My last memory is me climbing on top of him in the hospital not wanting to ever let go.” She said.

The birth of Arlene's daughter in 2007, however, brought new hope. “After years of witnessing death and seeing the realities of the war on drugs, and the war on the poor, I finally saw life.” She explained. Arlene began doing advocacy work in the hopes of creating a different world for her daughter. “I always continued to be very much connected to my street roots, but now in a totally different capacity.” She said. “This was more than my work. It was my life, I was married to my work and activism, dreaming of a world that was free from the stigma and the harmful policies that were killing those I love.”

A peer-level position, Arlene quickly realized, wasn't enough to support herself and her daughter. She decided to go back to school, but became disheartened when she saw that most graduate programs required a 4 year BA with honours, which she lacked. “I approached the Director of the Masters of Public Policy Administration and Law Program at York and told him that they needed to accept my application as I am only going to do amazing work and it would only benefit the program to be attached to my name. The director said that this had only happened once in his career, and that he would present my application to the dean if he felt I was a good candidate.”

Taking an unconventional approach paid off for Arlene, who, to her own surprise, was accepted into the program. It was her supervisor who nominated her for the Vital People Award, which Arlene said she never expected to win. “I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the holidays, let alone make rent, when I received a call on my way to class and was told that I had just won the award. I broke into tears and for the first night in a long time I could actually sleep.

“Since then I have begun a new job as Women’s Harm Reduction Health Promoter for COUNTERfit at SouthRiverdale Community Health Centre. I feel I am exactly where I need to be.” Arlene said. “My favourite part of the awards ceremony was hearing Matt Galloway praise my sex worker activism in a public space. For once this mama just enjoyed the moment and had tears that were filled equally with both love and rage.”

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