I have two disclaimers heading into this post.
Disclaimer no. 1: This posting incorporates some of the worst photographs I have ever taken.
Disclaimer no. 2: There is some extremely violent & graphic language in a few of these photos. You have been warned.
This is a story I never thought I’d be writing, simply because I couldn’t have imagined I’d ever wander into Vancouver, B.C.’s Downtown East Side (DTES).
But with incredible foresight from the International Women’s Forum, I did.
The DTES is known as “Canada’s poorest postal code.” It is home to about a third of Vancouver’s injection drug users, and we were in the thick of it.
Walking down the main “corridor” of the DTES, along Hastings Street, I could not have stood out more obviously had I had a giant panda bear on my head. Decked out in a bright red Nike sweatshirt, bright multicolored Flyknit running shoes, face hidden behind Ray-ban aviators, and my high ponytail swinging, I walked quickly amongst the crowds of zombie-like meth, heroine, and alcohol addicted people. Men and women, some who appeared no older than 12, others no younger than their 80’s. Though age, while walking along this street, seemed irrelevant. The outward, visible effects their addictions had taken on them proved true the evil shadow side of the cliché “age is just a number.”
My heart was beating quickly, I believe due to to my “flght or flight” senses kicking in, and then it happened.
I made the choice to slow down.
I made the choice to look up.
I remember saying to myself, “you will never get this opportunity again. Do not miss it.”
I decided to trust these people, the environment around me, and that if I allowed myself to be curious rather than afraid, these people just might feel that energy, and know that I was there to possibly learn something that somewhere, some how, might help their future.
Our first stop came rather quickly. We ducked into an alcove of a building next to a door with a graphic of a huge hypodermic needle on it.
We were at Insite, a supervised intravenous drug injection site designed to be accessible to injection drug users.
It is North America’s first and ONLY legal supervised injection site. The only one.
It operates on a “harm-reduction” model (a phrase I would come to hear many times throughout the afternoon in the DTES), which means it “strives to decrease the adverse health, social, and economic consequences [of dirty needle use] without requiring abstinence from drug use itself.”
As we talked with the Coordinator of Insite about their extraordinary program, I watched, through the glass door, as dozens of users walked through, picked up their wrapped, clean needles, and went into the back to self-inject under the supervision of medical personnel. The woman working at the front desk did not ask for one bit of information, and more extraordinarily, looked at each of them, smiled, welcomed them, talked with them, and, with her eyes wide open, cast absolutely ZERO judgement upon them.
I took a few stealth, blurry photos, but under reflection and upon advisement, I have chosen not to post those. Their privacy and dignity comes first. But I was able to take a couple shots of the signs they had posted.
There is so much more about this program worth knowing, so instead of hearing my interpretation of what we learned in those 30 minutes, I humbly ask you to learn more here if you are interested.
So we walked on… passed the dealers, this time, selling items, both stolen and found, on their blankets along the Hastings Street sidewalk. Looking down trying to arouse little suspicion, I saw Apple headphones, old baby shoes, watches, hair bows, used coffee filters (with the coffee grinds), and a man pulling raw meat out of a bag, selling it packaged in its grocery store plastic, hidden from public view.
We entered United We Can, “a charitable organization established to support environmental, social, and economic improvement in the inner city of Vancouver. The mandate is to create economic opportunities for people with multiple barriers living in the Downtown Eastside, through environmental initiatives. One of UWC’s key missions is improve working conditions for binners by ensuring they receive the full deposit on all their bottles and cans and have access to a working environment into which they are welcomed.”
The smell was crazy.
A strong combination of piss, beer, and weed.
And a rousing “HELLO GUESTS!” from a tall, toothless black man carrying two huge bags of garbage towards his binning station.
“What are y’all doin’ here?” he asked, with a smile that extended cheek to cheek.
“This is a group of women leaders from around the world who have come to learn more about the DTES, sir,” said Ken, the retired police officer escorting us. I was totally taken aback by his honest answer. This one thing has stuck with me… he could have said anything to this guy… “oh, just a group wandering through…” or “none of your business,.”
But instead he met this man’s question with honesty, detail, and respect.
I was able to take pictures inside this facility, here are a few of them:
Next time you see someone sorting through trash to pull those cans, know that this place exists, and that there are others out there, and it is GOOD.
Then we walked a couple blocks and entered ARCO, a single residence occupant (SRO) hotel.
It is home to those that live on welfare, many of them addicts. Some of them sex workers. All of them expected to be responsible and respectful of everyone living in the unit.
At the entrance to the Arco, I saw these: (WARNING: VERY GRAPHIC)
Yes, they’re blurry, but I had to take the photos, if only to remind myself that this was not an illusion. This is a reality for these women.
That the community is coming together to help each other. To warn these women what cars to watch for, what markings on men to notice to help catch them. Or to at the very least avoid being sexually abused by them.
Then this next to it.
and this, as another reminder, in case you didn’t see it in the entrance:
And finally, at the front desk of the ARCO hotel, just in case a resident thought they had a valid excuse for entering the building:
The rooms were tiny, but they were rooms.
The rooms were infested with bed bugs, but they were rooms.
The rooms were nowhere anyone reading this blog would ever spend even one night. They had no elevators, with zero access for anyone with physical disabilities,
But they were rooms.
And this, according to our escorts, “was one of the nicer SRO’s.”
Our group finally made it to our final SRO, a recently renovated one that, based on what we had seen, made these rooms feel like the Four Seasons.
It is for women only, with 12 rooms dedicated to women with visitation rights to their children.
After visiting their harm reduction room,
and food bank kitchen, we toured the kitchen, laundry area, and the beautiful rooms with luxuries these women have possibly never imagined… an elevator, a fully functional kitchen, a coffee maker, and very importantly, an object that you and I quite possibly take very much for granted: a mirror in the bathroom.
They grew their own food in their community garden, and even choose what to grow:
They have cooking classes, and they self-injected with zero judgement, with treatment options available when and if they ever decided it was “time,” with a 16 step, non-religious based program (12 step offered as well) ready for them.
As the elevator doors opened for us to head down to the lobby of the building, a woman stood alone in the elevator.
She was hauntingly thin, had scabs along both arms and all over her cheeks (the bleeding ones covered with bandaids), track marks on her veins, sunken eyes, and thinning straight strawberry blonde hair.
“May we ride down the elevator with you?” asked the operations director of the hotel giving us the tour.
“uhhh, yea.” She said, hesitantly.
So 8 of us, in our NIKE gear, Christian Louboutain boots, Louis Vuitton bags, and Burberry jackets piled into this elevator with this woman, and rode down with a meth addict.
Yet I left full of hope.
Because I knew this woman would be safe, for the moment, from contracting or spreading needle infected diseases, would have food to keep her from going hungry, had a mattress that had been treated in bed bug ovens, and lived in a place where her dignity came first.
So maybe her next choice will be to try to clean herself up. Or maybe not. But the point is, she’s got a choice.
I don’t know what my “actions” will be after visiting the DTES.
But perhaps, just by writing this story, I already have taken the first one.
The learning for me was this… we need to UNDERSTAND those things that we question. Or even those things we never knew existed.
We are all we have, people. Let’s be careful of what we judge when we are not educated about the topic before we do so.
And in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
“We must comfort the troubled, and trouble the comfortable.”