I live on the edge of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver, B.C. and have an office in the heart of it, well in Gastown. Every day and most days twice a day I walk through these streets that have become somewhat infamous through both controversy and celebrity. I have developed my own personal view of the area through the familiarity gained by walking through the area regularly and through reflection. I thought I would introduce this perspective. Today I focus on controversy, tomorrow on celebrity and then I will share some personal stories.
The controversy in the area is related to poverty, homelessness, persons with addictions and mental illness, crime and other issues that we refer to as social problems. These issues exist in other areas of the city and the lower mainland but there seems to be a concentration in the DTES. Every day I see evidence of these problems: bottle pickers; people holding out their cups looking for money, the line-up of people waiting for their methadone at the pharmacy; the occasional screamer; people curled up either on or under a bench or in a doorway or someone shooting up that early morning hit.
The controversy for the area has also centered on Insite, the supervised injection site where individuals can inject drugs and connect with health services in a safe environment. Since opening their doors in 2003 the centre has demonstrated health and other benefits for these individuals. The benefits have included reducing the number of overdoses and deaths from overdose, positively impacting the health of individuals using the centre, as well as reducing the impact of legal and justice issues for people using the services of Insite. They have accomplished these benefits all the while fighting to remain open. Harper’s Federal Government does not appreciate the value of Insite or the research findings supporting its work and has consistently attempted to shut it down. Fortunately for Insite, the Supreme Court of Canada recently denied an appeal by the Federal Government, represented by the Attorney General of Canada. This allows Insite to continue to operate. The decision is a good thing for the area and the people who depend on the services of Insite. I believe it also is good on a broader scale, providing a model for other jurisdictions and leading the way in looking for alternative ways to help individuals who are addicted. A demonstration of how we can support people where they are at rather than from the place we expect them to be.
Current controversy in the DTES focuses on the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry that is underway in Vancouver and all the events and memories that this examination is bringing back to light. The inquiry is looking into the death and disappearance of women from the DTES and more specifically at possible police mishandling of the Robert Pickton investigation. Remember Robert Pickton, the person who owned and ran a pig farm in the lower mainland and was convicted of the second degree murder of six women but is said to have bragged about actually killing 49 women, one short of his personal goal of 50. Although not restricted to the DTES, women going missing are a worry and concern and an unfortunate aspect of the area.
Integral to the inquiry into missing women are questions about whether the police and the justice system have treated sex trade workers and other vulnerable women in the DTES fairly and in the same way as other citizens. This is important to and for the people who live in the DTES. It is also important for women and all people in general.
What if we, that is the royal we: police, justice system, general public, were to treat all people fairly, regardless of their social status, gender, religion or color of skin? Living, working and walking in the DTES has given me real appreciation for the range of experiences that people face and reminds me of our common need for support, love and fair treatment. Every time I exchange greetings and a smile with someone in the area I remember that common bond.
PS None of the unfortunate incidents that I wrote about yesterday took place in the DTES.