A day in the life of Van­cou­ver’s Down­town East­side

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - NEWS - MAR­CUS GEE VAN­COU­VER

How have we let things go so wrong for Canada’s rough­est neigh­bour­hood?

It’s just an­other day on Van­cou­ver’s Down­town East­side. A young man sits on the wet side­walk, his legs spread wide, suck­ing the smoke from a burn­ing frag­ment of dope with a plas­tic tube. A man with lank black hair is slumped against a wall, bent over dou­ble like a limp mar­i­onette, his dan­gling arm twitch­ing at his side. A woman in skinny jeans, lean­ing on a store­front, pulls the plunger of a sy­ringe care­fully up and down, get­ting ready to give her­self a hit. An open pack­age of dainty cook­ies lies by her side.

Canada’s opi­oids cri­sis has swept like a wild­fire from the West Coast to the ci­ties and towns of the East. But in the place where the match first dropped, the fire is still burn­ing hard.

Scores are be­ing killed by the poi­son in their drugs – their res­pi­ra­tion slow­ing to a halt in an al­ley­way, a toi­let stall or a lonely room. Eleven peo­ple died of over­doses in Van­cou­ver in the space of just one aw­ful week this past sum­mer. On a sin­gle day, July 24, para medics re­sponded to 130 sus­pecte dover­dose calls. Of then early 8,000 such calls last year, about 5,000 were from the Down­town East­side.

To get a sense for what the cri­sis looks like at ground zero, I spent a day there last week. This was a rough neigh­bour­hood when I worked briefly at the lo­cal court­house for a Van­cou­ver news­pa­per in the 1970s, with al­co­holics spilling out of the seedy bars, drugdeal­ing in the al­ley­ways and hun­dreds of hard-up men liv­ing in flo- phouses. It is far, far worse now.

In the heart of one of the world’s most “liv­able” ci­ties, just next to the bou­tiques and bistros of Gas­town, shock­ing scenes of hu­man degra­da­tion un­fold ev­ery day. I don’t think I’ve seen any­thing like it – not in Mum­bai or Manila, not in in­ner-city Detroit or the South Side of Chicago.

On the morn­ing that I ar­rived, throngs of weath­ered, wounded peo­ple were out on the rain­soaked side­walks of East Hast­ings Street, the neigh­bour­hood’s broad cen­tral av­enue. Some sold pa­thetic trin­kets on the side­walk. Oth­ers hud­dled in door­ways to stay dry. Still oth­ers pushed over­flow­ing carts full of be­long­ings. Many were tak­ing their drugs openly on the street.

Trey Hel­ten helped show me around. A tow­er­ing 35-year-old wear­ing a biker jacket over a hoodie, he was an ad­dict him­self for seven years. He lived the last stretch on the street, home­less, scroung­ing for the next hit. Now he helps run the Over­dose Pre­ven­tion So­ci­ety on Hast­ings.

Users come there to take their drugs un­der the watch­ful eyes of OPS staff, who hand out clean sy­ringes and stand ready to in­ter­vene with oxy­gen and the emer­gency drug nalox­one. Mr. Hel­ten wears an oxime­ter on a lan­yard around his neck so he can mea­sure the pulse and oxy­gen level of vis­i­tors who show signs of go­ing un­der.

The place opens at 8 in the morn­ing, is full by 10 and stays busy till clos­ing at 9. It gets 300 to 400 vis­i­tors a day and there are sev­eral oth­ers like it, in­clud­ing the pi­o­neer­ing In­site just across the street. Are you smokin’ or pokin’? – in­hal­ing or in­ject­ing – the staff ask vis­i­tors who come to use the lighted cu­bi­cles in the so­ci­ety’s out­door tent. Some do both.

At a sec­ond set of cu­bi­cles in­side, a burly French-Cana­dian with tat­toos up and down his thick arms asked a pal to insert the nee­dle straight into the jugu­lar vein in his neck for a bet­ter rush. Be­fore he used, he tested his sup­ply at a new de­vice that uses in­frared light to search drugs for ad­di­tives. It of­ten de­tects pow­dered caf­feine, sweet­ener and even dry­wall dust, used by deal­ers to bulk up their prod­uct.

The site does its best to keep peo­ple safe, but many are still suc­cumb­ing to drugs laced with fen­tanyl, the po­tent syn­thetic opi­oid. De­spite its risks – a few grains can be deadly – fen­tanyl re­mains a pop­u­lar drug be­cause it’s so strong. Mr. Hel­ten says some are ec­static when tests find it in their dose. “It’s what they’re look­ing for.”

He took me out into the back al­ley, known as a favourite place to smoke crack-co­caine. A new wall mu­ral shows a weep­ing an­gel car­ry­ing the Christ-like body of an over­dose vic­tim. On it, peo­ple have scrawled the names and nick­names of their dead pals: Rus­sian Bobby, Sideshow, Buster, Tito, Fa­tal, Yaya. Just about ev­ery­one down here has lost a friend. Yet the band plays on. At Hast­ings and Main, the neigh­bour­hood’s his­toric heart, a cor­ner man called out “drugs, hard drugs.” A few steps away in “Piss Al­ley,” named for its no­to­ri­ous stench, a cou­ple of dozen men stood in the rain among the dump­sters and lit­ter – buy­ing, sell­ing, us­ing.

My visit left me reel­ing. How can it be that, in­stead of im­prov­ing in the four decades since I first saw it, this neigh­bour­hood has de­clined so dra­mat­i­cally? How have so many peo­ple come to live in such deso­la­tion? How can such a place ex­ist in a coun­try such as Canada?

It’s easy to de­spair of the Down­town East­side. It has been so wretched for so long that it is tempt­ing to think it will never change. Be­fore the over­dose cri­sis came the mur­der of lo­cal pros­ti­tutes by pig farmer Robert Pick­ton and the de­in­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of the men­tally ill, many of whom ended up vul­ner­a­ble and home­less on lo­cal streets.

Gov­ern­ments have spent hun­dreds of mil­lions try­ing to “fix” the area. Van­cou­ver’s new mayor, Kennedy Stew­art, has promised to set up an emer­gency task force, a ges­ture that makes those who know the place roll their eyes. The prob­lems here are as com­plex as they get. The prof­fered an­swers – more money for so­cial hous­ing, bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion about drugs and their dan­gers – of­ten seem sim­plis­tic.

And yet, giv­ing up on the Down­town East­side would be an aw­ful mis­take. All of the fail­ures of this for­tu­nate, thriv­ing, car­ing coun­try are on dis­play on th­ese streets: its fail­ure to grap­ple with the cri­sis of men­tal health, its fail­ure to tame the epi­demic of drug over­doses, its fail­ure to im­prove the con­di­tion of many Indige­nous peo­ple, its fail­ure to put a roof over the heads of its need­i­est cit­i­zens.

The suf­fer­ing of this neigh­bour­hood and its peo­ple should weigh on us all.


Trey Hel­ten, a front-line worker for the Over­dose Pre­ven­tion So­ci­ety, opens the door for a user at the fa­cil­ity on Van­cou­ver’s East Hast­ings Street. Mr. Hel­ten was once an ad­dict him­self.

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