I have always been interested in journalism – something about uncovering hidden truths to the public has always been grabbing at my attention in life. About a month ago, I was wanting to start a project which would expose the effects of gentrification from a more personal, honest perspective, from people directly involved with the Downtown Eastside. So instead of getting on the 135 SFU Express bus from Main and Hastings after school one day, I grabbed my tape recorder, took some deep breaths to calm my nerves, and walked into the First United Church to try and talk to someone about these issues. I did not plan any questions, and I was soaking wet from walking five blocks during what seemed to be typhoon weather, but when I met Heather, she treated me like I was a top-notch journalist who deserved a great level of respect – when realistically I was just some girl, drenched, unprepared, and nervous, wanting to uncover some fascinating information about the Downtown Eastside.
Shannon: Who are you and how long have you been working in the Downtown Eastside?
Heather: My name is Heather Forbes and I am the communications and resources manager at First United Church Community Ministry Society; and I’ve been with First United for almost three years, and I previously worked for a social housing provider for two years in the community – so I’ve been here for 5 years.
Shannon: What attracted you to working here [in the Downtown Eastside]?
Heather: The Downtown Eastside is a really vibrant and neighbourly place, I’ve always been involved in social justice work, I care a lot about housing, and I think that’s a really important issue of our time – so it’s worth putting energy into. My background is actually working in aboriginal communities, working for people of aboriginal descent, and that is a big issue in the Downtown Eastside, so it was a pretty natural progression for me to end up here.
Shannon: What would you say is the hardest and most rewarding aspect of working here?
Heather: Definitely the most rewarding is the relationships; people are really friendly, they really look out for you… I am a young woman that doesn’t look particularly imposing when I’m walking down an alley at night, so everybody looks out for me. They take care of you, and make sure that you don’t get into bad situations. And so I’ve always felt really safe and really taken care of in this neighbourhood.
Shannon: The Downtown Eastside is often always viewed as a very violent place, would you agree with that statement? What are your views on the crime activity?
Heather: There is certainly crime and violence here, and I would say the reason that there is crime and violence is because of dire poverty. But I’ve never felt unsafe because people are looking out for you and nobody is really that interested in you because they got their own business, they’ve got their own stuff to deal with.
Shannon: Personally I feel the same way – I’ve never felt uncomfortable here. I’ve had times in the suburbs, and the “nicer” parts of Vancouver and felt much more unsafe than I do here.
I remembered what it was like living in North Vancouver before I moved to the East Side, and I compared the ambiance of night life. The East Side is alive in the streets at night with so much happening, whereas the suburb of the North Shore is eerie in its sleepiness. It is in North Vancouver where I am more nervous to be alone at two in the morning waiting for the bus, because in East Vancouver, there are people out. And even if they are not necessarily good people with good intentions, there is too much activity in the area for anything to happen – people would notice, and people would be aware if anything would happen to me. All sorts of people are out at night in the East Side – there is a range of ages, demographics, cultures – but in North Van, the only people out at night are teenagers, gang members, drug dealers, or all three combined.
Heather: To answer your question about what the hardest part is, is that there isn’t enough housing. And so you get people that are interested and ready to change their lives and seek stability and move forward and get jobs and housing and no longer be homeless, but there isn’t a place for them to go. And so you get people that are in really really tough situations and are really motivated, but they are stuck – and they are stuck not because of themselves, but because there is no appropriate place for them to live. I totally understand some of the choices that people make, to not take housing, because some of the housing that is offered is extremely awful; so it’s not a very compelling decision to live in an SRO [single room occupancy] with bedbugs. I wouldn’t make that choice.
Shannon: How do you feel about the single room occupancies? Do you think it allows people to have a sense of independence or do you think it is slightly regressive?
Heather: A single room occupancy hotel, if it’s clean, not full of bedbugs or infestations, and if the door locks, it works for some people who don’t need a kitchen, or need things… I think very few people would choose that over having their own kitchen and their own bathroom – particularly their own bathroom. If they’re well-kept and respectful then they’re fine, but most of them are terrible, and awful, and I would never live in one.
Shannon: A lot of the time with the general public who view the life of the homeless, they more or less think it was a choice. When people are asked “what do you think the reasons are for being homeless” a lot of the time they will say drug addiction, mental illness, or just being brought up in the wrong situation and the wrong time – but would you that say it is more about the societal aspects? Like, if society isn’t prepared to help their people and the individuals?
Heather: Yes, I definitely think it is a systemic, social thing. When you meet people there are a lot of different reasons why they don’t have housing, and there’s a lot of different paths that go into it. So certainly there’s no typical person, and no one chooses it. And I think that lack of economic opportunity, lack of a social safety net, lack of appropriate supports for people with mental health issues, lack of supports for people who have experienced violence; if someone needs to change their housing situation because their relationship breaks down and there isn’t a place for them to go, it makes sense that they fall through the cracks. Because there’s a really big crack for them to fall through.
I realized at this moment, that it is the perspective on homelessness which must be changed in order to act as a progressive society and fix the problem. We currently are looking at things with a sense of false consciousness (Karl Marx’s idea of humans blaming the individual for their problems, when in reality the whole is to blame). We need to change this and take responsibility for our actions. It is so easy to be aware of someone’s struggle and disregard it as their fault, caused by their series of mistakes or unfortunate life; and it is easy to blame other things, without understanding the root cause. Societies are built to create a support system. The human spirit, either by mistake or design, flourishes with the presence of others, as we are not self-reliant for everything in life. We need others to be involved for guidance, emotional support, and positive reinforcement. Societies are created to provide for this need; societies are responsible for ensuring everyone’s healthy development and mental well-being, by providing social support systems. So instead of blaming the individual for homelessness, we must blame society. And since we make up society, we are therefore responsible for our system’s failures, and we are to blame. Our society today does not fulfill its purpose of allowing people to grow together – instead, we are left to fend for ourselves, and our growth is stunted. Our apathy is negatively affecting so many people. Mental disorders, drug addiction, violence, crime, and homelessness are just a few symptoms of the disease of a corrupt, apathetic societal system.
Shannon: So a lot of the time with the homeless in this area, they are not born in the Downtown Eastside. And they are more or less not even from that area of Vancouver, or not necessarily from Vancouver in general. But because the housing prices, they are drawn to the Downtown Eastside. Would you say that people are essentially forced into the Downtown Eastside?
Heather: I think that these are issues that have been happening, … but Vancouver has always been a place for people to come for opportunity, for a new start – where as the history of Canada is just going westward for opportunity. And so it’s a place that if you are looking for a fresh start you’re going to come here, you’re going to come to a place like this, because it’s a nice place to be. And people aren’t motivated by coming to the Downtown Eastside because they want to rely on shelters, they come to Vancouver because they hear it’s a good place to live and that there are jobs here or that you can have a good life. And everyone’s just looking for a good life, so it totally makes sense that people come to Vancouver for that. And there’s a lot of people that live in the Downtown Eastside that are fairly new to the city, and there’s lots of people that have lived here for a really, really long time, and it’s their home. And I think sometimes people think of the Downtown Eastside as a transient place, but it’s not; we’ve got our own festivals, our own culture, and people put a lot of energy into cultivating community here – and I think that’s really exciting and is not often recognized outside of the Downtown Eastside… there’s a reason why our festival is called “Heart of the City”; it’s because it’s the core of the city, and it is the beating heart. It’s a special place that people put a lot of energy into.
The Downtown Eastside is a very historical place, being the main hub for early settlements in the Lower Mainland; it is where Vancouver had its beginnings. It was the final destination for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and it was the first choice of immigrants from around the world who desired nothing more than the dreams they were promised of North America. It amazes me to hear that the cultures have managed to remain and grow and thrive in this area filled with such rich history. To have negative views of the Downtown Eastside is to have negative views of our entire city, for it is the reason Vancouver came to be. We should embrace the history, the culture, and the physical land in order to protect the essence of Vancouver.
Shannon: So how do you feel about small businesses coming in, and not necessarily destroying the physical building itself, but just taking it over with a new aspect, by bringing more “value” (I used air quotations here to express sarcasm) to society?
Heather: Yeah it’s hard – because in a city like Vancouver where everything is so expensive and you get entrepreneurs that want to try something, they’re going to go into neighbourhoods where they can afford the rent. And it’s exciting that there’s young people that are trying out creative businesses and you want them to have success and yet you also don’t want to lose what makes a place so special. Its really tough. It’s something that can be done more and less respectfully. I think that anyone coming into a neighbourhood – anyone coming in anywhere – needs to be respectful of the authority there.
Shannon: Just understanding the history and current situation I guess
Heather: Yes; so the Downtown Eastside is very welcoming and I think if you come in with respect and you treat people well, you will be welcome. And I remember a few years ago a friend of mine, also a journalist, was also doing a project on gentrification. There was a fancy donut shop that opened up into the Downtown Eastside; and he was looking around for people to say that they hated it, like he was expecting all the local people to say it was terrible, but they all loved it because the owner had put a lot of energy in being community connected and donating extra donuts at the end of the day. So the most gentrifying thing, like selling a donut for three dollars, but he couldn’t find anyone who hated it because the owner had done the work.
Shannon: Definitely from the way the media portrays it, it always come across that the Downtown Eastside is more of a place of hate, but from the way you explain it, it definitely is not. So have you made any personal connections with people that live down here?
Heather: Yeah, I mean I have lots of friends because I’m here everyday. … We hang out, drink coffee, do anything anyone else would do. I mean, everyone knows that I don’t live here, but I’m still a person, and I still like Neil Young, and so we have more in common than we don’t. So everything that matters we have in common.
Shannon: I guess what you are saying is that if the general population was more empathetic and understanding of things, it would create a more welcoming environment, and would end the negative stigmas associated with the Downtown Eastside, yes?
Heather: I think that people that live here and spend a lot of time here know that life’s harsh – no one’s pretending it’s not. But people are good and people are really good neighbours and they’re kind to each other and they look out for each other and they’re really nice people that have different backgrounds.
Shannon: I’m just wondering if someone who has been at risk, or been homeless how have they made an impact on your life?
Heather: … I struggle with that question because I could answer that question about anyone I’ve met anywhere.
Shannon: Sorry, that question was very broad… has there been one person or story that has impacted you on a deeper, more personal level?
Heather: I guess I could say, that one story that really stuck with me was when I was working at the social housing place and I was doing interviews for people to move into the building, so they had to be homeless or at risk of homelessness. And this man came in who was 45 and he was from Prince Rupert. He had worked in a fish cannery all his life, and my dad was a fisherman. … This man worked in a fish cannery for 20 years. And he was 45 and the cannery had closed, so now he was on welfare, he had an addiction. Because [when] you lose your job, you lose your livelihood, you lose your identity, it’s incredibly disruptive, and totally makes sense you would turn to substances in that type of situation. And he said, “I’m 45, I’m not ready to stop working.” And it was just such a universal thing, because I have family members that, they didn’t end up homeless but they did end up in the same thing, with such a common thing. And that was an economic decision to close that cannery, that screwed this guy, and the chain of events that came from that are all totally understandable – totally understandable that you would get depressed, that you would turn to substances, that you would move out of your little town because there’s no job for you, so you end up in the city where you have no connections. Everything just followed from there in a totally reasonable way, and it wasn’t anything he did. That’s always something I think about, just knowing what my family background is. I feel like people that I love or myself could have totally ended up in that situation.
Once Heather shared this story, I recalled so many others similar to it in my life. My grandmother in the 1940’s, was working at a cannery in the Okanagan, and she decided to move to Vancouver once she was tired of the little opportunities available to her. She told herself if she did not find a job within three days she would have to go back home, and after just three days of staying in the Patricia Hotel, she was able to land a job as a typist. But you see, these were different times. People were encouraged to move west and get to the coast, and people had these hopes of a better situation in a place of new found opportunity. These hopes and ideas stuck for years after, and are now only myths which people choose to believe. This job my grandmother managed to get was possible because of the economic boom that occurred during the war-times, because of the increasing need for typists and women in the workforce, because a higher education was not mandatory for a decent job, and because simply the population was much smaller allowing for more room to grow as a city, physically and economically. This is not possible now unless the universe is really on your side, and you are somehow lucky enough to get a minimum wage job someplace in the city; but for the most part, it takes a lot more time to find a job than it took my grandmother. For people who do not have a higher education, or even high school education, it is very difficult to be viewed as a good candidate for a job position. For people that do have a higher education, perhaps their area of specialization is not in high demand, and they get laid off, and can’t manage to create a new employment situation for themselves. For so many reasons people today in Vancouver can be jobless, temporarily and more permanently. It is this gap, between employment and unemployment, which is the most devastating right now. It can change people’s lives dramatically. Think about how strange life can be sometimes – it is understandable that an infinite number of things can and will change within a short amount of time. It is understandable that there are so many things that can go wrong during this time of unemployment which really puts people at risk. Depression or anxiety would most likely be a common side effect, and I am not surprised if some would experience personal breakdowns. I know so many people close to me with mental disorders who could have easily become homeless, or drug addicts, but they were fortunate enough to get proper medical help before it was too late. I also know some people close to me who were not as fortunate, and did fall through the cracks, because they could not get the help they needed. They became alcoholics, and became homeless because no one was willing to support them to recovery, and there was not enough knowledge of or social programs for people with mental disorders. Small things add up and create much larger problems; for some people, the catalyst for a downward descent is something as simple as losing a job or not being able to find one. From here, there are an abundance of things that can happen, but the most common to occur is loss of hope, and feelings of worthlessness; because without a job, the person may no longer feel like a contributing member of society. Once this notion of worthlessness in society becomes engrained in our lives, we do not see much value in ourselves and our world, and we lose our motivation to stay healthy; we do anything we can to feel content with ourselves, but it is an empty search if there is no opportunity to be supported by others around us, and we may look to fill ourselves up in the wrong places.
Shannon: What would you think is the most effective way to target helping the situation of the Downtown Eastside?
Heather: It’s easy, it’s raising welfare rates, and it’s creating more affordable housing, more different types of affordable housing.
Shannon: So is it about prevention and about bringing in more support to prevent people from becoming homeless?
Heather: Yes, those two things happen across the board. If you are on welfare and you’re paying rent, you don’t have enough money to buy food, so you’re going from foodline to foodline, you don’t have any time to look for a job, so you are stuck. Even if you want to work, you can’t, because you are making this impossible choice between eating or looking for work. And so if social assistance rates were higher, then people would be able to look for work, or they would be able to make improvements to their lives that they want to make – they are very motivated to make. But they are stuck in impossible situations just because they want to eat and sleep. They need to provide the core resources for themselves; and so the system is just built for people to fail.
This interview did not tell me anything I did not already know – but it enabled me to connect all these ideas and emotions to explain the simplistic solutions to the issues regarding the Downtown Eastside. Life is hard, and it is complicated, and we are all just like how I was going into this situation – unprepared, nervous, and wanting to uncover some fascinating information about life and our place in the world. Sometimes we get caught in the rain and we get caught at our worst, but our failures – and triumphs – should not define us. We deserve to be encouraged and empowered by any member of society, regardless of what we appear to be. Heather treated me how I should be treated as a human being. She treated me how I should be treating others. Heather did not know me. We had not met prior, we had not even talked at all before. She knew nothing of my past, yet she accepted me like she knew everything about me, and treated me like she knew me my whole life. She shared her views and answered my questions, but also filled me with a new appreciation for life; because although I appeared to be a water-logged mess, I was not disposed of; I was given the chance to talk and connect with someone. From this I was able to appreciate what it means to accept someone entirely, without preconceived notions which shape opinions of someone – because I understand now that it does not matter who we are or where we came from, for what truly matters is where we are going, collectively. We need to go forward in a positive direction, and that requires us to find unity and harmony with one another. In order for our society to build enough sufficient support systems for those who need it, we must change our way of living into a mindset of empathy and compassion. We are all the same; all just looking for a place to belong, a person to talk to, or a place to take cover from the rain while we gather ourselves up from the streets. We all deserve acceptance, we all deserve hope, and we all deserve a good life.