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My visit to the seamy underbelly

At the harbour, outside my hotel

At the harbour, outside my hotel

So…I went to Vancouver for a whirlwind business trip. I arrived Wednesday afternoon and left Friday morning. I was working most of the time, but I did have two more-or-less free evenings, so I did what I could to cram Vancouver in.

I hadn’t been there in 30-odd years, and Vancouver and I have both changed a lot. Back then, I used to hitchhike and my idea of luxury was to check into a youth hostel for the night. This time I was on a business trip, staying in a fancy-pants hotel and experiencing a very different side of a very different Vancouver.

Skyscrapers on West Hastings

Skyscrapers on West Hastings

It’s a pretty amazing city. It’s a visual feast, with its mountains and ocean and skyscraper architecture. I’m not generally a fan of skyscrapers, but they have some really impressive ones. I was in awe as I walked around downtown, just taking it all in.

My hotel was just a mile and a half from the Downtown East Side, which is where North America’s only safe injection site (Insite) is. The Downtown East Side is referred to as “Canada’s poorest postal code.” I’ve seen documentaries and youtube videos and I attended the Supreme Court hearing on Insite’s right to exist. I thought I knew what to expect. But nothing could have prepared me for the reality of actually being there.

West Hastings

West Hastings

I walked from my hotel down West Hastings to East Hastings, which is where Insite is. West Hastings is all high-end stores, and then it turns into East Hastings and BAM! Suddenly you’re there! Everything changes! Instead of upscale jewelry stores and people in suits, there’s shelters and food banks and the Pigeon Park Savings and Insite, and you’re in the thick of this bizarre sidewalk sale, surrounded by addicts and homeless vendors selling weird stuff, like half a guitar and four little bags of grapes and a box of cereal and a single high heeled shoe. Almost everybody’s got a grocery cart, and lots of people have their wares spread out on the sidewalk. Everybody looks so old, but they’re not. They rarely live long enough to get old…they just look old because they’re addicted, decrepit and toothless, and their faces are sunken and many of them have visible disabilities.

The first evening I was so shocked by the spectacle of it all that I literally fell down just half a block from Insite. I was looking around at everything and everybody except the curb I tripped over, and I slammed hard into the sidewalk. I was bleeding from my knuckle, one elbow and both knees, but I didn’t realize it until later. Several people put me back on my feet and I kept going.

I didn’t take pictures. I thought it would seem rude, like I thought they were freaks or something. And honestly? I was afraid someone would grab my phone if I took it out of my pocket. I didn’t feel safe at all. For the record, nobody accosted me, nobody talked to me, nobody asked me for anything or behaved in a threatening way towards me. But there’s something that feels threatening about seeing so many people (and there were SO MANY PEOPLE) who are so poor and sick and with so little left to lose.

The first evening I just kept wondering “How do they do it? How do they live like that? How can they stand it?”

I kept getting stuck on one thought – that they must, in some fundamental way, be different from “us.” They must be wired wrong or something. They must be inherently deficient to allow themselves to sink to the very bottom and stay there.

I didn’t like these thoughts. I didn’t like what they told me about myself. I was having a tough time reconciling what I was seeing with what I think I believe about poverty and addictions and stigma and desperation and social justice and EVERYTHING.

I went back the next evening. Stay tuned for Part II.

4 comments to My visit to the seamy underbelly

  • Bev Blais

    Hi Zoom:

    It’s about 50 years for me. There were some of those areas even then. People went west to Vancouver because it was Canada’s mildest and most moderate climate. Many had nothing and yes lived on the street. Really liked your description (pics are nice as well) and can understand the discomfort, perhaps challenge to your values. It’s our Mexico where many visitors can’t handle the obvious poverty. Will look forward to your second visit account. Bev

  • Jan

    Read “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”, by Gabor Mate, MD. It’s about that very injection site and, of course, addiction itself. It’s brilliant – explains a lot and really helps to understand our own and society’s reaction. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it!

    • I read it when it came out. It’s an excellent book. Maybe I’ll take another look at it as I try to sort through my feelings/thoughts about seeing East Hastings first-hand.

  • I’ve been following the debates on safe injection sites as well. I lived in Vancouver in 1993. But somehow, I never actually even saw this part of it. I really appreciated reading your candid thoughts about your visit. Now I think I need to read In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.