Thursday, March 12, 2009


United We Can Bottle Depot, Hastings St

In many ways Vancouver is a beautiful city. Dramatic mountains, beautiful beaches, a lively arts and music scene, great restaurants and cafes, etc, etc. Not surprisingly, my neighbourhood doesn't make it onto the post cards. We live in the Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code.

Peoples Pigeon Park, Hastings and Carrall

A couple of days ago I had to drop off my grocery bags for the tv shoot, which meant walking about 3 or 4 blocks from my house. Having lived in the area for awhile now, just like living in any other community, I have gotten to know some of my neighbours. It's a familiar feeling, and I really do enjoy the sense of community here. Often when people hear where we live, they seem a little shocked and worried for my safety...and maybe think we're a little crazy. I have never once felt unsafe in my community. Not once. The misconception that because people are poor and/or homeless, they must therefor be violent is simply not true. This is not just a misconception, but a lie that is constantly told to us by the media and government in order to continue on in the marginalisation of the city's most vulnerable people. As I heard Barbara Ehrenreich say once, 'Poverty isn't a character flaw, it's a lack of money'.

My neighbours are literally struggling for survival on a day to day basis. When I say there is poverty in my community, it is (to my mind, and I'm sure many others) on a third world scale. I have truly never seen anything like it. The HIV/AIDS rate in the DTES (Downtown Eastside) is worse than the epidemic in Africa, not to mention hepatitis. The people you see outside the United We Can building in that first photo are a fraction, not just of the homeless population in Vancouver, but of the people you would usually see there.

Gastown, Vancouver

So, back to dropping off the grocery bags. When I leave my house, I cross E Hastings St, which has become synonymous with poverty and homelessness. I walk over needles, past people hanging out and sleeping on the steps of First United Church (this has become an unofficial emergency shelter) and sex workers working their corners and alleyways. I walk past the Buddhist temple, amongst young girls shooting up and turning down offers for crack. Then, as I pass Sunrise Market and near the rice market I notice something across the street that looks a little odd (by now I have walked about three blocks). I see a couple of young hipster girls standing and chatting outside a building I hadn't really noticed before. As I walk up to it, I quickly realise that it is a rather trendy new cafe. I turn around to look behind me and see shopping carts full of cans for the depot and the entirety of the owners belongings.

Within the width of a street I had gone from abject poverty to a $30 lunch. See that photo up there of Gastown? That is two blocks from Pigeon Park (which takes up a block). Two freaking blocks! Two blocks from people sleeping in the doorways of empty buildings (while either the building owners are waiting out the market to be able to make more from selling or leasing, or they are currently being converted into fancy apartment buildings and office spaces to keep up with the gentrification two blocks north), to the most expensive real estate in the city. Two blocks from indigenous peoples making up a large majority of the homeless and marginalised community, to souvenir store after souvenir store selling ridiculous appropriations of their culture.
Like I said, this is my community. I have become accustomed to (although still outraged by) homelessness and poverty. I don't usually go into Gastown though, and so I often forget the incredible disparity that is seen in Vancouver. This is a city that is hosting the Winter Olympics (on stolen land) and spending millions and millions of dollars to do so, yet can't house and feed its citizens. That has closed down mental health facilities and then not only do they not replace that with anything that works, but they then actively marginalise and criminalise the people who we should be looking after and protecting. A city where DTES residents who actually do have homes are being evicted to prepare for the Olympics, where DTES residents are being ticketed for minor offences (jaywalking, being in a park after 10am, etc) and can obviously not pay the fines which means they are banned from the neighbourhood at best, and jailed at worst. How can we still believe that this is not intentional?
Thankfully, the DTES also has a strong history of activism, community and protest. Although, it isn't always easy to get people to listen to you when you're not viewed as a person of any worth in the first place.
I wasn't exactly sure why I was going to write this post initially. I have no solutions to offer right now, I'm just angry. I'm angry because an entire group of people are ignored, systematically marginalised, ghettoised and basically left to self destruct. I'm angry because so often as a society, we see fit to cast off entire groups of people and that we are so unwilling to critically look at why homelessness and poverty occur. It is not because people are lazy, or because they're 'bad', or because they expect a hand out, or because they're indigenous. Homelessness isn't a career choice, people are forced into it because they have no other option. Women who are unable to find work enough to support themselves find themselves with very few options but prostitution. People with mental illness (and others) use drugs as a means of coping with the hell that is their life on the streets.
I don't know. For those of you in Vancouver, please think critically about us hosting the Olympics and what this means for the city. Please think about the injustice of buildings sitting empty for years, while people freeze to death on the streets. For those of you not in this city, please think critically about who is not being heard in your city. Please think critically about who is being heard, and what this means for the most vulnerable.
Please, make yourself heard for those who are having their voices taken away from them.


Anonymous said...

I may never get published but this post would make a great letter to the editor.

You may need to edit or reduce it slightly but the sentiment should be the same.


lyn tupaea said...

We've got one word for you Becka - BRAVO !!!!! put so honest and thoughtfully - I agree with dad it needs to be in print xxx love you mum and milton

The Little Mama said...

So good, Becka. Thank you so much for this.

kate said...

i totally agree with you- and your dad. you should submit this post!

Amber Csar said...

Your words are so true.

I have such a hard time dealing with that exact fear cycle - poverty = violence. Neglect and dehumanize them.

Just a FYI my sweet sweet loving and caring sensitive brother made it off the streets and gave up his addictions to heroine(and sometimes crack) to get cleaned up alone in a small shack in the forest with an older gentlemen. He couldn't get into any detox centers in Vancouver , so he was forced to make it on his own. He is now currently in 30 day rehab program out east in New Brunswick.

People forget that people living on the streets are family, they all need to be cared for, by us all.

Here are some resources I feel we just need to have more available. My brother found it very difficult, because he had no access to this information. I think the more we are familiar with the resources in our community, the better we are able to assist people.

Thank you Becka.

Urban Environmentalist said...

Thank you so much for this Becka.

I know exactly the place you are talking about. While driving around the city on our visit in the fall, we came across this part and were shocked with the transition of a couple blocks from poverty to high-end real estate and shops. I did a paper for one of my university courses on the criminalization of poverty. Much of my paper focused on the Olympics and poverty in Vancouver. Instead of treating the problem, the poor are being moved out of the city for the upcoming olympics and any sliver of poverty or disparity covered up so that the rest of the world does not see the disparity taking place in our supposed "first world" country. Women forced to turn to prostitution to make a living are put in some of the most dangerous situations and do not have the protection of the legal system. Women of minority groups have even less. It is times like these where I feel shame for being among the priveledged in Canadian society. I cannot believe that in this day and age in this country, this type of thing is being allowed.

I can identify with Amber. My sister has been on a waiting list to get into the local rehab center here for 9 months with no avail. The system is really good at making it very very difficult for people without the means to get help. Unless you can afford private sessions you're shit outta luck!

Submit Submit Submit. We need letters to the editor like this!

Lindsay Dee said...

Great post Becka. I just read today in the newspaper about the tickets being handed out to those who [obviously] cannot afford them for such minor offenses. Is this Vancouver's way of 'cleaning up the streets'? Right. It sickens me that many of these people are under rug swept when there should be some real action taken. Definitely submit this letter to a newspaper or somewhere. I think it is great.

handmade romance said...

Such an honest and touching post. I think people too often judge others on looks / circumstance such as homelessness, forgotten we are all people. Just yesterday I read a little quote that was something like (sorry I cant remember exactly)... Remember to be nice, everyone is fighting their own battle.
Wouldn't is be NICE if those empty building could be put to better use! So much more niceness in the world could go a long way. Sadly money makes the world go around for far too many.
I agree with your Dad too.

becka said...

Thank you all so much for your comments! I was a little unsure when writing this post, maybe it was too 'negative', but I have been totally overwhelmed by the response both on and off line.

Amber - I am so stoked to hear about your brother! That is such incredible news.