Thursday, May 21, 2009

Untold Stories

I've had my eyes opened in the past few months about homelessness and drug addiction; and how people react to them. Homelessness is a growing problem in Dublin, i guess even more so with the current economic situation but i was unprepared for the sheer scale of the problem in Vancouver. Due to the mild weather that Vancouver usually has year round and especially in winter, living on the streets here means there is less chance of being frozen to death.

The week i arrived here something unusual happened: It snowed. Temperatures dropped to an average of minus 13. As i walked around trying to get my bearings in a new city i noticed a huge amount of people begging and panhandling (approaching strangers to beg or ask for money or food). I've travelled and have never encountered anything of this scale before. The snow continued and one morning I heard that a homeless woman had burnt to death a short distance from where I was staying. In an effort to stay warm she had lit a candle in the makeshift shelter she had built. Her cart and belongings caught fire. The smoke marks are still on the wall where thousands of people pass everyday. Brace yourselves; there may be some ranting ahead.

I had been told to avoid the downtown east side (DTES) area of Vancouver but wanted to see it for myself. On December 25th,Christmas day I walked through parts of the DTES for the first time. Those that had a home/ family or friends were nowhere to be seen. With heavy snow on the ground there were people crouched in a doorway sharing a bottle of alcohol, people with limbs missing, elderly people, others nodding out or shooting up. Dante's circles of hell had nothing on this. I was there recently, crossing Hastings and Main Street and it was an open air drug mart with tension in the air.

Regarding the DTES : It's one of the cities oldest neighborhoods. It is home to thousands of people, from the homeless to the affluent. The residents are a diverse mix of people, many different ethnicities, ages, and incomes. Parts of the area are riddled with drugs, prostitution, theft and violent crime. The strange thing is that it’s taken for granted that people sell and take drugs in the area, almost accepted. Unfortunately this is the final roaming grounds for many that succumb to overdoses or ill health.

It has been written, argued and debated about. Opinions vary widely from people I’ve spoken to on the subjects of homelessness. Veering from "Why should we spend hard earned tax payers money to help junkies or homeless people" to "it's their choice, many choose living on the street". There is a sliding scale of homelessness: there are many working in low income jobs that are unable to support families and afford housing.

Rent is Vancouver is astronomically high and homelessness is rising amongst families surviving on low income. Considering the minimum wage is $8 an hour and the average cost of a 1 bed in Vancouver is between $800-1500. It’s a fact that people ignore but most people (myself included) are 2 pay cheques away from being homeless.

I’ll watch with interest as to how the DTES situation is handled as the 2010 Winter Olympics are being held in Vancouver. What the fuck is wrong with a society that think nothing of spending billions on bringing the Olympic Games to the city; but turn their backs on the thousands who sleep on the streets every night. Where indifference has replaced anger and a ‘it’s not my problem’ attitude prevails. I’m amazed how badly the situation been handled. It’s almost as if the powers that be have wiped their hands of the situation. There are already talks of how the police will handle homeless people and people in the DTES in the run up to February. If you live in a neighbourhood where drug addicts or homeless people are, it's easy to be dismissive and forget they are human beings.

Not all homeless are addicts and not all addicts are homeless. Addiction should not be viewed as a crime. It has to be treated as a health problem. There is a large percentage of both addicts and homeless suffering from mental illness; and each individual has a story as to how they got to where they are today. For example Riverview was a psychiatric hospital located near Vancouver. The hospital opened in 1913 on 1000 acres and provided specialized treatment and rehabilitation for patients aged 18+. Apparently at its peak in 1951 there were 4,630 patients. Over the years patient numbers reduced to hundreds and the hospital closed relatively recently. Many of the people who were in Riverview were long-term residents. Some were moved to smaller facilities, but there was also some that had nowhere to go; nor the means to cope with everyday life. As a result they have ended up on the streets.

It’s not a subject that can be wrapped up easily and it’s not something that just affects Vancouver. Addiction and Homelessness affect millions worldwide. There are 2 excellent documentaries that put human faces and stories on the topics above: ‘Cart’s of Darkness’ and ‘Through a blue lens’. You can watch both of the films in their entirety below thanks to the National Film Board of Canada (click on the link below to watch these films in a larger size and hundreds of other shorts and films for free on their website).

In 'Carts of Darkness' director Murray Siple befriends a group of homeless men who use the treacherous mountain roads and shopping carts of North Vancouver as a way to escape the darker realities of life. Shot in a similar vein to extreme sports film making; and featuring a pounding soundtrack featuring Black Mountain, Ladyhawk, Vetiver, Bison and Alan Boyd of Little Sparta, Siple captures the risks and intensity of life lived on the outside.

‘Through a blue lens’ is a harsh and unflinching account of daily life in the DTES; and was shot by members of the Vancouver Police Department who work thereon a daily basis. It contains some scenes that are adult in nature and viewers of a sensitive nature may want to skip certain parts. It's gut wrenching to watch but
interesting to hear the stories behind the people.

Hand Image: Jeff Sheppard
Riverview Hospital Image: Justus Hayes / Shoes on Wires

Carts of Darkness Still Image: Scott Pommier
Placard Image: The Blackbird


ReVoLuTiOnArY TeNdEnCiEs said...

Great thoughts. I agree, I lived in Vancouver for a short time in 2009. I was amazed at the homelessness of the city and especially horrified at DTES. I was compelled over and over to go back and visit the Hastings area. I was able to meet a lot of really interesting people while there. Initially I felt like Jonah. I didnt want to have anything to do with the people of DTES. They were so offensive, my immediate reaction to them was almost like, they all just need to die.
But no. The compulsion escalated. My desire to return drove me to go back day after day and study the culture. The people who live there are just that... they are people. Though in many ways they may live like animals and not know their left hand from their right, they are not animals. They are just like me. I realized that they had moms and dads who loved them just like mine did to me. I realized that they know what they are. They know they are addicts (or whatever their problem may be). What I forget is that I am just as sinful as they are. The only difference is my sinfulness is better able to be hidden from the world. And for what ever reason, my sinfulness has not affected me to the point that I have lost everything.
What floored me is when I realized that I do not deserve good any more than they deserve it.
August of 09 is when I flew out of Vancouver without my heart. I left it in DTES.

Green of Eye, Sharp of Claw said...

While i share your love of the DTES, I do not share some of your views on it.

"What I forget is that I am just as sinful as they are. The only difference is my sinfulness is better able to be hidden from the world. And for what ever reason, my sinfulness has not affected me to the point that I have lost everything."

Religion or 'sinfulness' as you call it has absolutely nothing to do with why these people are the way they are. Mental illness, the closure of River View hospital, lack of access to support services, domestic abuse, sexual abuse and drug addiction coupled with a temperate climate and high cost of living in Vancouver are some of the contributing factors to the situation.

In my opinion 'god' or 'sinfulness' is an easy out take on justifying the situation in the DTES

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