People who live or work in the neighbourhood hit hard by the drug crisis say if you look beyond problems, you see people trying to help one another.
By Jeremy NuttallStaff Reporter
Sat., Feb. 4, 2023timer6 min. read
VANCOUVER—The skies over Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside threaten rain as they darken and release the odd drop to the bustling sidewalks of the country’s most controversial neighbourhood.
Under a black fold-up canopy at the corner of Columbia and East Hastings, volunteers of the Overdose Prevention Society sit, somewhat safe from any impending downpour.
Canopies like this one dot the DTES and serve a function: saving lives. Volunteers keep their eyes peeled for anyone who could be having an overdose so they can administer life-saving treatment, such as naloxone.
Within view from here are dozens of DTES residents. Some sit on the pavement outside tents, some walk, some sell things, some are disoriented, some lie on the sidewalk.
“This area here gets a lot of action,” says a man named Scotty, who won’t give his last name and is keeping an Overdose Prevention Society volunteer company on his watch. Munching on a bagged salad, Scotty keeps an eye out for those in distress.
He and others agree the neighbourhood has troubles, but comments made by Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre referring to it as “hell on Earth” don’t jibe with those who call it home.
“He’s obviously never spent more than a couple of hours here,” Scotty says of Poilievre. “It’s got a magic that’s hidden beneath the sort of rough exterior.”
Scotty says the best way to describe the DTES is humility and generosity in a neighbourhood full of people who are “broken-hearted” and in need of help. The love for each other manifests in lumps of stuffed animals piled up on street corners, sitting as memorials to those who have died here as the toxic drug crisis rages. Nearby lampposts and walls are adorned with missing posters of those who may not be dead, but cannot be found.
Many who spend time here suggest the seedy surface and chaos of the area hides a bright, warm and loving underbelly, one where those who can take care of those who need them to.
Make no mistake. The reach of the West Coast’s toxic drug crisis goes far beyond the DTES. According to the B.C. Coroners Service, Greater Victoria and the suburb of Surrey are also in the top three communities in the province when it comes to toxic drug deaths.
The service said going by toxic drug death rates, the highest number of deaths take place in the north of the province, where the death rate is 60 per 100,000 people, compared to Vancouver Coastal Health’s rate of 51 per 100,000.
Provincewide the death rate is 41 per 100,000.
Still, even with overdoses happening all around Metro Vancouver, the Downtown Eastside remains the focal point of lament for the drug crisis.
Poilievre’s reference to East Vancouver and descriptions matching the DTES came during a scrum on Parliament Hill this week. They were made days after British Columbia’s move came into effect to decriminalize hard drugs for quantities under 2.5 grams as part of a three-year experiment.
“It is a complete disaster, it is hell on earth,” Poilievre said. “We’re going to reverse that policy and we’re going to replace it with recovery and treatment. That’s what works.”
The decriminalization experiment is meant to encourage people into treatment by removing the stigma around drug use. But Poilievre pointed out that police haven’t been arresting people for small amounts of hard drugs anyway since about 2017 and said the problem has since become worse.
“It has been a disaster, an absolute abject failure,” he said. “Take a walk down the streets of east Vancouver, where addicts lay face first on the pavement, where people are living permanently in tents and encampments.”
Kathy Shimizu is a community organizer around the DTES and says what’s missing from Poilievre’s comments is a clear understanding of how the neighbourhood works.
“I don’t deny that things are pretty awful for a lot of folks,” Shimizu says. “It’s a culmination of decades of not doing enough, making mistakes.”
Greeting various people, Shimizu opens the door to The Hub on East Hastings. Inside is a cavernous concrete warehouse storing almost anything people in the neighbourhood would need, provided by more than a dozen organizations.
Racks of clothing and furniture sit on one side of this room, while the opposing wall is lined with industrial-sized fridges storing food for programs feeding locals.
Standing among the stockpile, Evan Reeks of the Heart Tattoo Society says the organization brought 500,000 pounds of food to the streets last year, with the help of this storage area, through various programs.
“The cost of food is ridiculous,” Reeks says. “Someone can come and just subsidize their grocery bill a little bit, it means they can get a pack of razors, get some toothpaste.”
These are the kinds of efforts, organizations and dedication fuelled by people in the DTES who care about the neighbourhood and its residents, Shimizu says.
But they rarely are given attention.
Further east at Main and Hastings in what was originally a Bank of Montreal but is now owned by the city, the Aboriginal Front Door Society watches over more than 700 large and small containers holding the possessions of those living on the street. The smell of smudge fills the air.
The society’s vice-president, Chris Livingstone, says the initiative came about after constant upheaval over tents and homeless camps in the area. Many advocates say authorities were throwing away people’s possessions when clearing off sidewalks or parks.
The DTES is a unique community of people trying to protect themselves and support each other, Livingstone says. He said Poilievre’s characterization made him think.
“I tried to think about what is the counter (argument),” Livingstone says. “And the counter could be that he’s part of this hell on earth, and he’s partially to blame for it just like everybody else bears some burden of responsibility.”
While Poilievre is looking at the surface of the neighbourhood, Livingstone says, others are trying to help improve it.
Deaths from overdoses have increased exponentially since fentanyl began flooding the drug market in 2016, claiming 14,000 lives in the province.
Poilievre linked the tragic spike in deaths to Trudeau’s time in power and to the NDP, without specifying if he meant the provincial government or federal party, and pointed to a treatment approach in Alberta as a better alternative.
Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim defended the city under his charge since October’s election. Sim said the city has been going in the right direction in recent months, claiming a decrease in street disorder and random assaults.
“Do we have some challenges? Absolutely. Are we addressing them? Absolutely,” Sim told City News.
He added he hopes the decriminalization project has a positive effect on the drug crisis.
Sarah Blyth, the executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, says comments made by the Conservative leader were uneducated. Blyth said drug use is much more complicated than they make it out to be.
“No one could imagine the drugs would be this bad,” Blyth says.
Fentanyl is more powerful than traditional hard drugs, she notes, making it harder to recover. Often those who die had been recently released from jail, hospital or recovery and fell back into drugs. Some take their usual dose that they can’t handle after not using for a while.
Others have different issues and if given safe supply can live a normal life otherwise, she says. Those living in the Downtown Eastside understand all of this, Blyth contends.
Blaming the community is the wrong approach, she says.
“To just call it a hellhole is so disrespectful to the people who live there,” Blyth says. “It’s hurtful.”
She says countries like Portugal, often held up as a the best model of dealing with a drug crisis, don’t have a fentanyl problem the way Vancouver does.
But despite the death and other problems in the neighbourhood, the people there are compassionate and support each other, she says.
What would help the people would be government making proper efforts to save lives through various methods including safe supply, she says.
“Politicians need to talk about communities in respectful ways,” Blyth says. “Be the hero these people need. It is so disheartening to hear people trivializing it for political reasons.”
Jeremy Nuttall is a Vancouver-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports
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