September 7, 2019

Our focus on the Downtown Eastside didn’t come from some government announcement or press release. It came from observation.

In more than two decades covering the neighbourhood as a reporter, I’ve never seen it look worse. Or feel worse.

This first struck me when I was there in July to do an interview in front of the Balmoral Hotel about single-room occupancy (SRO) housing for The Early Edition.

I parked in front of 312 Main St. — the old police station — and got out to plug the meter. As I was feeding coins in, a woman in shorts stopped behind the car, stretched open a pant leg, and urinated on the road in front of me.

Then later, as I did the interview in front of the Balmoral at 159 East Hastings Street, a man settled in a doorway behind me and shot up.

When we wrapped, I made my way back to the car and was left with one thought: the Downtown Eastside has never been worse.

A couple of days later, I interviewed the mayor of Vancouver, Kennedy Stewart. We talked about how the new council was working, we talked about affordable housing — and since I had him in front of me, I felt compelled to share what I had seen.

And the mayor agreed it’s the worst he’s seen it, too.

For as long as I can remember, various levels of government have been blaming other levels of government for not doing enough.

Now, for the record, I’m no stranger to the neighbourhood. My interview in front of the Balmoral wasn’t some one-off.

I live in Strathcona and walk through the Downtown Eastside on my way home from work. Generally, though, I avoid Hastings Street, partly because the sidewalk crowds make it almost impassable, and partly because in the past couple of years it’s felt downright dangerous. It used to be that people there barely noticed you. Now, I increasingly feel like a target.

I also lived on the edge of the neighbourhood, on Powell and Columbia, from 1991 to 1992. The street scene then was harsh but tolerable, with a recurring cast of characters, most of them living rough and for the most part harmless. It’s nothing like what you see today.

None of this is to say I have any idea what the struggle is like living there day-to-day for years on end, or the trauma that brought people there in the first place. It’s only to say that I’ve been watching it for a long time. And to me, nothing is any better.

My first stories as a student journalist were about the gentrification of the neighbourhood and the construction of new condo buildings that displaced long-time residents. That was in the mid-90s.

I’ve worked on stories about the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, the opening of the first sanctioned safe consumption site INSITE and the unsanctioned injection site that preceded it.

I’ve followed people through harm reduction drug trials and various detox initiatives. I covered the Woodwards development; the protest occupation of the Woodward’s building known as Woodsquat; the Vancouver Agreement signed by all levels of government to improve social welfare in 2000; the birth of the city’s Four Pillars Drug Strategy in 2005 (harm reduction, prevention, treatment and enforcement); and on and on through countless public meetings and neighbourhood initiatives.

I once toured the neighbourhood at night with members of a senate committee on illegal drugs. It might be hard to imagine former Conservative senators Pat Carney, Pierre Claude Nolin and Gerry St. Germain trudging through the wet back alleys of the place — but they did.

In this neighbourhood’s alleys, death is not a stranger.

More than 4,500 people have died from drug overdoses in B.C. since 2016, the year the province declared a public health emergency, and coroners’ reports show fentanyl was involved in approximately 85 per cent of those deaths. More than 1,000 of those deaths were in Vancouver, many of them in the Downtown Eastside.

Safe consumption advocates in the neighbourhood often wear a badge that says “Clean Supply.” It’s about more than harm reduction — it’s about changing the conversation, breaking down an ideology and ending the stigma.

Distributing clean drugs is an idea in action today at the Crosstown Clinic on West Hastings Street, where 140 chronic addicts are prescribed medical-grade heroin. But getting a clean drug supply to users on the street — to more than 140 people — is seen by many as the key to ending the crisis.

Dr. Mark Tyndall, who has worked in the neighbourhood for years, has come up with a rather novel idea to install vending machines that dispense safe drugs.

It may sound a bit out there, but many experts support getting a clean supply to users in one form or another — including the mayor’s Emergency Overdose Task Force, Vancouver’s chief medical health officer Patricia Daly and Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

The call hasn’t been entirely ignored by Ottawa. In July, federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor announced $76 million to combat the opioid crisis, with nearly half earmarked for safe-supply projects. When that money will come, and how those drugs will be distributed, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the province says drugs and decriminalization are the responsibility of the federal government and Ottawa says it has given B.C. the tools it needs to tackle the crisis.

But while addiction and a poisoned drug supply may be the most immediate and life-threatening issues in the neighbourhood, there is more than one crisis that needs fixing in the Downtown Eastside.

Dozens of tents remain in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park, most of them around the park’s perimeter after the park board issued an order for campers to leave the tent city.

The camp has occupied the park for months and has stood as a stark reminder of the city’s housing and homelessness crisis.

Before the Oppenheimer eviction notice was issued, officials from B.C. Housing went from tent to tent offering rooms to campers. Some people took them up on the offer. Others refused to move.

And not wanting to live in single-room occupancy accommodation (SRO) is understandable.

In June 2018, 92 tenants of the Regent Hotel, which is owned by the infamous Sahota family, were evicted when the city found the building structurally unsafe.

A year earlier, the Balmoral Hotel across the street — another SRO owned by Sahota Family — was also condemned, leaving more than 100 people looking for a place to sleep.

And then there is gentrification, which continues to squeeze the Downtown Eastside from all sides. Buildings are renovated for condominiums and studios that are put up for rent that cost many times more than the $375-a-month shelter rate a person on social assistance receives.

Even the worst of the privately owned SROs rent for more than that.

I walked through there again in late August after doing weeks of coverage and the south side of Hastings Street was even more chaotic.

This time, five police officers stood in the middle of the block, one of them having a conversation with a rough-looking man he knew by name. Across the street, two officers were cuffing another man who had just tossed a pair of shoes onto an overhead wire. Further up, another officer was checking the serial number on an overturned mountain bike.

When I approached one of the cops he asked me if I was “real” media. I showed him my CBC ID, and showed him I had turned off my recorder.

I asked him if it was unusual that so many officers were on the street.

“We’ve stepped up enforcement a bit,” he told me.

“Since when?” I asked

“Over the past couple of weeks,” he said.

I thought about the effect of that enforcement. Maybe a few arrests, maybe some people told to move along because of court-imposed no-go orders, maybe some stolen property recovered.

But the presence of five uniformed police officers didn’t seem to change the behaviour of the people on the street.

Everything was just… well, normal.

Normal, that is, for the Downtown Eastside.

Click here to listen to a compilation of The Early Edition's recent coverage of the Downtown Eastside.