Pivot intern reflects on a DTES tour

I was recently taken on two tours of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) with two of my friends who both work in the area. One has been actively involved in volunteerism with several of the local community support services for 30 years and the other is a veteran social worker of 20+ years. I wasn’t sure of what to expect, but after having read Cracks in the Foundation, I was confident that the adventure I was about to embark on was going to sadden me and anger me. I was right, it did.

My introduction started off by a brief history lesson of the Riverview hospital. It was a medical institution that cared for many individuals with mental illness. It closed once mental health care became regionalized. Upon sizing down, many of its residents were not welcomed back to their respective communities with open arms as the hospital’s administration expected. Former patients eventually ended up in the DTES. At the time, it was the only place they could afford to stay long-term. Many of today’s DTES residents are descendants of those individuals, giving the area a long history of suffering.

The first feeling I noticed when walking down East Hastings was a discomfort in my belly. My body was telling me that I didn’t want to be there. My mind was telling me that I didn’t belong there. Somehow I was different than the area’s residents. I was experiencing fear, of what I’m not sure. I was confident that I was not going to get mugged, but then again, there was no way to know what was going to happen to me with any degree of certainty. For years, even moving to Vancouver, I was told that the DTES was a violent and dangerous place, that the area should be avoided at all costs. After having spent two afternoons there, I recall what my social worker friend, let’s call him Clark, told me about the area. He said the worst that can happen while traveling in the DTES is that someone might lose their balance and fall on you.

The first institution I explored with Clark was the Raycam Community Centre. Behind Raycam is about two blocks of social housing.  I thought it was great to learn that there are (at least) some affordable housing options still available to some people. However, after a walkthrough of the housing units, there was nothing I could detect that would encourage people to engage with their neighbours. I also learned that the units generally have a 4-year waiting period, particularly the SROs. I noticed that the property had a basketball court, but I saw no efficient use of space. There were no play structures for children, and there was little green space. Most of the entire area was a giant concrete jungle.

In my view, the current approach to social housing is irrational. The social assistance support people receive in our province isn’t sufficient to live in most cities and it’s certainly not enough to live in Vancouver. In most cases, it doesn’t cover the rental costs in this city. Yet, the provincial government expects people to pay their monthly rent and purchase enough food for the month with a meager 610$? The unreasonable reality of the situation struck my being in a deeper way when I visited the number of places providing free food in the area.

One of these places was the Union Gospel Mission. When we arrived, they were about to serve lunch. My friend told me that there is usually a long line up to get in and that the food served is actually quite good. I was relieved to learn that services exist for people that provide them with much need quality food and comfort. What troubled me was that the government wasn’t operating these services -meaning that the supply of money might vanish at a moment’s notice.

When visiting Sheway, a safe space where women have access to prenatal care as well as social services, that’s run by Vancouver Native Health Society, I was amazed at the sheer level of activity and use. The place was wonderful. I walked into an encirclement of women and children talking and playing games. It was apparent that many were benefiting from this service and that it was helping them immensely. I witnessed people being engaged with one another and the children were socializing with other children.

We know from studies that young children learn valuable social skills from interacting with other children in a space they feel safe in and that these skills are essential to their emotional development. I remember thinking about how it is absolutely pivotal that families (particularly single parents) have access to affordable and safe daycare. I think it’s problematic that desirable daycare is quite costly and I know from my experience working with a local community centre, that subsidized daycares usually have a long waitlist (sometimes of up to 3 years!).  Like I learned during my visit to a social housing project, it seems the services needed by so many are lacking in a serious and disturbing way.

As I recall those two afternoons, I think to myself: if there’s any waitlist, then there is a LARGE, predictable and ongoing need for these services. As we know from studies conducted by Statistics Canada, most people at work today are the working poor, meaning that they work full time jobs (sometimes more than one) and they are still barely making ends meet.  The cost of living a meaningful, prosperous and healthy life is elevating to levels that few are able to reach. I do not understand why the government is not providing more services people.  In fact, it seems to me that many of the services we need more of are being cut! Why isn’t the government providing daycare for parents?

I also had the unique opportunity to visit the Washington Needle Depot. It was there that I was given a crash course on the operations and construction of a crack pipe. The Depot offers free, sterile medical supplies and crack pipes, which is a tremendously valuable service in the DTES given the epidemic of HIV and Hepatitis C in the area. The Depot also gets day-old foodstuffs from Starbucks that it distributes with the pipe kits. This is great, as I learned that crack-dependent users typically don’t eat very much (or at all) so it’s important to encourage users to eat.

Clark also educated me on the effects of crack. According to him, because it’s a stimulant, the substance causes the body’s neurons to fire rapidly which is why users often have the ‘shakes’. It can also leave them feeling hyper-focused on something. To them, whatever it is they are focused on is the most important thing in the world. I remember my friend contextualizing his explanation as we approached an area known only to me as the DTES Market. There we witnessed a man and a shopping cart filled with copper wiring. He had bundles of it, my friend told me that this man was likely a crack dependent and for whatever reason was hyper-focused on copper wiring. This man was going to try to sell his wires, but I doubt he was successful in doing so.

After our visit to the depot concluded, we walked to Crabtree Corner, an area populated by sex workers and drug dealers. At the time, Clark was searching for a client of his that hasn’t been seen in sometime. We approached several of the dealers to inquire about her whereabouts. After my friend flashed his I.D. and explained that he was a social worker in search of a client, the dealers were put to ease and were both friendly and helpful. Unfortunately we were unable to locate his client.  It was at this point of my experience that I started to realize that I had been misinformed about the DTES. It strikes me as odd that everything I had ever been told about the DTES, its residents and drug dealers were totally inaccurate. In my experience, everyone I interacted with was friendly, helpful and I didn’t feel threatened or unsafe at any point of my visit.

I also visited my first marijuana clinic.  My social worker friend informed me that many of his clients were marijuana users and that it was a very effective pain management tool for them.  I learned that when one obtains a referral from a doctor and after registering with one of the licensed cannabis clinics, patients could legally purchase pot to help them cope with whatever it is they are struggling to cope with. I remember a childhood friend who died of cystic fibrosis and how marijuana helped him cope with the pain.  I also remember how it helped him put on some much needed weight as his body had difficulty absorbing fat. I don’t understand why there is still an ongoing debate regarding the legalization of this plant, especially after the Health Canada commissioned 5-year Le Dain Commission Report.

In my view, the experience of walking through the DTES with individuals who have worked there for many years is an experience I feel grateful for. At the very least, it allowed me to open my eyes a bit wider.  Although I could have perhaps seen this coming, I was again surprised at the huge disconnect I discovered between reading about people’s experiences in the various Pivot reports, and interacting with individuals, on the ground, in an interpersonal fashion. It was painful enough for me to read about the suffering of people living in the DTES, but it was more challenging for me to witness the suffering with my own eyes.  I remember thinking to myself; there is no reason for this. Why aren’t homes provided for the individuals who don’t have them? These people should not be left to seek a safe space to spend the night. Everyone should have a roof over their heads, everyone should have food on their plates, and everyone should have access to free medical care and talk therapy, if they desire.

Many of the services that were exposed to me during my visits of the DTES were charitable associations, stemming from religious organizations with deep pockets (read: catholic charities), and I can’t help but wonder why the government isn’t stepping in. If the donations run dry and the charities can no longer afford to operate, their services will also stop, and when that happens the ceiling of human suffering will grow exponentially.  It’s not like our country (or our province for that matter) doesn’t have the money. Look at how much was spent on those ridiculous Olympics. Look at how much was spent on security during that month. Look at how much our Prime Minister spent on a fake lake. Why aren’t equally vast sums of money being spent assisting people in need? The realities I witnessed during my visits of the DTES are unreasonable to me.  It appears as though the current approach to poverty is irrational and that alone is reason enough to modify it.

My experience also leaves me thinking about a much broader question than the ones I’ve already shared with you. I’m wondering about how our society values human life. Is it an Animal Farm type question where we can say with a degree of certainty that everyone is equal, but that some are more equal than others? Such a thought repulses me, but I’m not ready to dismiss it just yet. The facts are this: in Vancouver, some people are guaranteed food on their plates and a roof over their heads; others are not afforded such luxuries (and I do think they are luxuries when you have a huge portion of the population without equal access). I think it’s inadequate to build shelters for people. Why aren’t homes being built for them? I was told by several of the service providers that they frequently have to turn people away at night because they do not possess sufficient beds. The answers come to me after carefully considering what a very wise woman once told me: look at the evidence.

In my view, the evidence is clear. People are suffering unnecessarily and little is being done to alleviate the symptoms. The evidence suggests that although some government services are provided, they remain disproportional to what is required. The current level of engagement by those with the capacity, the power to prevent and minimize the suffering is lacking.

What it comes down to it, to me, this is a question of rationality. What rational approach can we take to resolve some of these issues? I think society has an ethical responsibility to each member of the community to ask these questions.  Should people be provided medical care and shelter from the elements: YES, should single mothers (or mothers in general) be provided free quality daycare services for their children: YES, should we make sure everyone has had enough to eat: YES, should we make sure people are able to have a meaningful level of community engagement: YES, should everyone be able to feel reasonably safe from harm: YES. If we want to live and behave rationally (and I believe most of us do) then we as a society must start to make different choices.  We have to start addressing the root causes of the suffering in the DTES and I believe a practical place for us to start would be to examine the dynamics and realities of poverty, mental illness and addiction.
In closing, I believe we are ethically obligated to do the very things that we as a society aren’t doing. The City and the federal government are criminalizing behaviours that, when scrutinized under a rational lens can probably be catalogued as a series of public health concerns. Instead of sending police officers into the DTES we need to send more social workers, more nurses, and more group therapists. People are here, not because of their ‘poor choices’, but because most of them probably have nowhere else to go. Clearly, many of the residents of the DTES are facing numerous challenges and I think we should be doing more to help them. Being poor should not be a de facto crime, nor should mental illness be a crime.