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The Drug And Homelessness Problem In Vancouver

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How would you feel if I were to tell you that the city of Vancouver is not as perfect as it may seem? Vancouver is recognized to have beautiful snow-capped mountains, a gorgeous view of the ocean, and numerous other breathtaking sceneries. However, the landscape is not the only center of attention here, but landmarks like Capilano Suspension Bridge, Granville Island and Gastown are also highly praised areas admired by famous magazines and travel bloggers.

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Vancouver is known as the “City of Glass”, because of the beautiful glass and steel aesthetic of the buildings found in Downtown Vancouver. Not only that, but it is also known as “Raincouver” and “Hongcouver” too, because of the frequent rainfall that occurs here, and due to the general demographics of the city. Good things aside, it is also known to be “Vansterdam” and “Lotusland” because of the abundant drug traffic presence in the streets of Vancouver. Specifically, the nickname “Vansterdam” is made as a result of the lenient regulation of the drugs here. Similarly to “Vansterdam”, “Lotusland” is created due to the ample recreational use of marijuana in this city. Although Vancouver has all its beautiful attractions and may look like the most livable city through the internet or as a tourist, Vancouver also has a side everyone refuses to address: the extreme and uncontrollable problem of homelessness, poverty, and addiction especially in the streets of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. It is crazy how you see these absolutely astonishing streets of Gastown, with the most beautiful buildings and extravagant restaurants only to walk 10 minutes to the east, and you see a completely different face of the city that you were just in. It is like walking over an invisible border that separates the super rich and the super poor.

In the Downtown Eastside, you see an overwhelmingly insufficient amount of effort placed into the aesthetics of the place. It looks and feels like the end of a World War, wherein the economy is still trying to make a comeback, but never does. The only establishments clearly visible are charity organizations and “hotels”. However, these “hotels” are unlike those seen in the main city. They are rundown buildings that used to be hotels for the tourists and seamen before the Downtown Eastside experienced its decline.

In the novel, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction” by Gabor Mate, the author briefly spoke about the inner workings of these hotels. He explains that these hotels would rent out their rooms and services for cheap so that the poor would at least be living under a roof and closed walls. For instance, the Portland Hotel Society, as stated in the novel, is a hotel that’s aim is to “provide a system of safety and care to marginalized and stigmatized people”. Before we even started our experience with the walkabout, Elaiza and I (Sofia) had our very first experience on the bus to the Downtown Eastside. While I was waiting for the bus at the bus stop, a homeless person came and sat next to me. He said hello and after, just continued to stare at me. I did not react and i kept reading my book, which was in Greek. I hoped that he might believe that I could not understand him, and would leave me alone. However, he still kept staring. I felt awkward and did not know how to react. Then I saw the bus coming and I stood up, walked around, and waited for it. I entered the bus last from all the passengers, and i hoped that he would not sit next to Elaiza, but he sat one seat away from her. So when i sat next to her, she was by the window, then it was me next to her, and the guy beside me. The rest of our part of the bus was empty. We started talking, but both of us felt uncomfortable with the situation since the guy kept staring at both of us frequently. When the bus stopped at a traffic light on Broadway and Arbutus, he turned his head towards the window next to us, and stared at the gas station. At the same time, he started talking to himself about where this place was. When we did not respond, he started whispering some violent actions that he would do to us. Probably in the hopes of getting a reaction from either of us. However, we just ignored him, and pretended that he was not there. As the traffic light turned green, and the bus moved from the gas station, he stopped talking but still continued to stare. After several stops, we decided to move seats, and sat in front of the bus. We did not change seats because we were scared, but mostly because we were in an awkward position and we were not feeling comfortable talking with a person staring at us. After he got off the bus, we assumed that he probably had a mental disability or has gone through trauma with gas stations. Explaining why he reacted that way when we passed by one.

Generally, the feeling that we got was sadness for his condition but also curiosity for what might had happened to him before. Although we were not in Downtown Eastside yet, we felt like we were, when we met him. We felt that feeling of protecting ourselves and being more careful with our stuff. During our experience walking around the Downtown Eastside, we started walking through the streets of East Hastings. It is one of the main streets of Vancouver, and perhaps Downtown Eastside. We noticed the significant difference of the streets and the people who lived there. The streets were dirtier, and there were loose garbage everywhere. Most of the people living there either lived in hotels, on the streets, or in tents established in parks. The second thing that caught our eye was the way people were dressed. The women were more attracted to incorporating bright colors into their appearance like having blue hair, wearing red lipstick, or thick eyeliner. We think that these women were still trying to take care of their appearance and grab the attention of the people around them. Even though they probably had problems with addiction or mental illness. While males wore more plain and simple clothing. The people there typically wore layers of used, washed out, and sometimes ripped clothing that kept them warm during the colder seasons.

Thirdly, we noticed that the people living there usually disregard typical traffic laws. They just cross the street whenever they want which rarely happens outside the Downtown Eastside, since police would fine these pedestrians for jaywalking. Also, as we were walking further down the streets, we passed by this woman who had a full set of acrylic nails done, which typically costs around $80. Meanwhile, she was wearing old, ripped clothes, and seemed to be living on the streets. Although we found this quite unusual, we just laughed about it and wondered how she was able to afford that manicure while living on the streets. Also, we started to question why she did not use the money for some sort of shelter or for food.

Lastly, and most shockingly, we noticed a lot of used syringes candidly thrown on the ground, like as if it were a piece of bubblegum. This was quite shocking for all of us because we did not expect this much explicit evidence of drug use in any part of Vancouver. Also, we heard many stories about people in the Eastside openly injecting themselves with drugs on the street, publicly. That put us in the position to think that the government is supporting these people with their addiction problems because they give out a monthly allowance, unchallenged. While being well aware that they do not use it for their basic survival needs but they use this money to fund their next high. Nevertheless, we did not see any of that while we were on the walking tour, we just wanted react by saying how crazy and messed up that is.

The drug problem in the Downtown Eastside is so overwhelming, and it really saddens us to see people going through problems without any more hope of getting better. Although there might be many organizations helping out, and offering food to the poverty/ homeless, we still feel like there is something more that we can do for them in their journey to sobriety. At the beginning of the walk, we thought that the environment looked different compared to the other parts of Vancouver. It was less developed and more intimidating. However, as we spent more time there, we got used to the feel of the atmosphere, and felt less anxious. It really struck us how substantial these problems are in the Eastside. As we live our lives, sometimes we forget about how bad things are getting as we continue to live our lives out of the Downtown Eastside. As we passed by the Carnegie Building, located on Main Street, we noticed that there were a lot of people coming in and out of the building, and out of curiosity, we decided to check it out. The general demographics of the people there were like the rest of the people around the Downtown Eastside. They consisted of middle aged, and senior citizens who were less privileged. Majority of the people were males. However, there were also a surprising amount of females as well. We noticed that there were more females inside the building than on the streets. Giving us the impression that they probably feel more comfortable and safe in a closed environment with security personnel available on site. According to S, the librarian that day, DVDs, newspapers, and self care books were the most popular. She said most people there were generally very good with understanding the rules and regulations of the library. When asked if she enjoyed her work, she said that she is very happy with what she does and the people she is around. She liked that there was a sense of community and everyone seemed to help each other out when someone feels unsafe. While talking with S, we came across two males who wanted to checkout some books. They were really kind, and patient as they were waiting for their turn.

Furthermore, we noticed that there was a bulletin board filled with newspaper and journal articles about safety, poverty, and drug use. We assume that the bulletin board was placed there so that they the library personnel can spread awareness about the dangers of drug use and to be updated with the current news for that week. Although the majority of the people going there were homeless, had drug addictions or mental illness, the feeling of sadness and misery went away as we watched them laugh and smile enjoying their books and the company of their friends. Seeing this really made us happy, because they are facing their situation in a more positive way, and finding things to do during their free time. Next, we made our way to the second floor. Here, it is furnished with many tables and chairs. It was designed in a way that looks like a cafeteria-type setting. We noticed that it was very clean, and the food did not look bad. In fact, they looked really good that it can be sold for much more than how much they were actually selling them for. There, we met Jim. He volunteers as a “runner” for a few years now. A runner basically acts like a busboy. He picks up the used bowls and is in and out of the kitchen. He says that this is a very good subsidized place for the homeless since the food they serve is really fresh. When asked about what type of people typically came here, he answered by saying: “people who come here are poorer people who are looking to eat cheap (but good) food, and who come here to socialize with other people ”He also, began to tell us how he felt about volunteering here before. He said that at first it took him a while to get used to the place and the people, but now it does not really bother him anymore. Although the people who went there were generally nice and respectful, he also mentioned that some people clearly had mental issues.

From our observation, the crowd coming here were similar to the crowd going to the library. They essentially came to spend their free time in a calming environment. Possibly to escape the problems they are facing in their personal lives. As we were on our way out of the building, we heard this guy walking around and yelling “methanol” so carelessly without precaution. He looked like he was looking to sell some by doing that. It just surprised us that this man was so blunt and open about selling some drugs on the street. This is something that would not happen if you were anywhere else. Like if a drug dealer would be selling in Pacific Center, they would not be out there, yelling the drugs they had in stock out at the entrance of the mall.

Despite the thought of putting ourselves to be vulnerable to danger in the Downtown Eastside, we realized through our little trip that this little part of town that everyone is trying to avoid is actually a beautiful little community of people who just need our help. Yes, it did feel uncomfortable at first, but they are just as human as we are. Trying to live the best life that they can. They’ve been hurt, abused, and fighting their own personal problems that we don’t know about, so we need to support them and lead them into a better life away from drugs. Now that we’ve experienced this and talked to the people, we feel way more comfortable and motivated to volunteer and help out so that this population of the homeless and substance abuse victims will lessen.

15 Jun 2020

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