Saturday, January 10, 2009

exploring canada's poorest postal code

E. and I went on a field trip today - to the Vancouver Downtown Eastside.

A little about the Downtown Eastside (DTES). It's about a 10-block-square area which is home to approximately 16,000 people of which 4,700 are intravenous drug users and 1500 are homeless. There are apparently as many people on the streets as there are in shelters. Police report that 50% of calls they get from the area involve mental illness. The DTES has the dubious distinction of being Canada's poorest postal code.

Today we went with a group from our church. CLA's history of helping out on the Downtown Eastside began most directly when a former pastor (Gordon Wiebe) decided to go there as a missionary. Sometime in the early 2000s he resigned his position and moved from his home in Langley into one of the DTES rooming houses. The story of what happened is told more fully here.

Now, seven years later, he lives in the Dodson Hotel and through Community Builders helps run three rooming houses - the Dodson, the Jubilee Rooms and Powell Rooms. In the last year people from our church have been going down the Dodson (25 East Hastings) every two weeks to lend a hand. They work on building relationships with the residents as well as helping with upkeep (cleaning rooms, plugging mouse holes, fixing plumbing etc.). In the last few months they've also helped with a renovation that will see the former pub converted into a kitchen and a meeting room.

This very rainy cold day started out as we boarded the bus at 9:00 a.m.

Even some politicians were in attendance (Mark Warawa our MP and Langley Mayor Peter Fassbender).

Thank you to Lisa who was an amazing tour guide. She filled our drive into Vancouver with interesting facts and stories about her DTES experiences and helped us debrief on the way home.


Gordon Wiebe

When we got to our destination, Gordon Wiebe boarded the bus for a few minutes and talked about the "Ten Competing Forces in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside." (I really like the list he gave us of ten helper types with their various philosophies - like harm reduction, missions, social housing, activism etc. It has given me a set of pigeon holes into which I can now file the things I hear about the DTES.)

Next our assignment was to break into small groups and:
1. do a walkabout, looking for examples of the ten forces listed on our handout.
2. eat lunch (we were issued a list of eateries).
3. make our way to the Dodson for a brief tour.

It was about 11:00 a.m. when we got started and we were in the capable hands of "orange shirts" Kevin and Esther, who are frequent helpers at the Dodson. Kevin piloted us to the Carnegie Center where we used the clean public washrooms.

Then we braved the rain again and walked several blocks past the Jacob's Well (one of the DTES missions) to The Jubilee Rooms.

Jacob's Well

It and the Dodson which we toured later, are very old buildings - 100 or so years. The common room at the Jubilee housed a TV set and a chair. There was also a minimal kitchen where people could heat water, make toast. The girl who was watching TV when we came thundering up the stairs was gracious, but I felt a little awkward, coming through her living space as if this was some sort of exhibit A.

Outside the streets were pretty quiet, but it gradually grew livelier as the noon hour passed. Though many locals carried umbrellas or wore jackets with hoods, they still looked cold, waterlogged, and miserable.

Community garden

From the Jubilee Rooms we made our way back to the Carnegie Center for lunch. The Carnegie is a central community meeting place with a library, a room with tables for games, even a gym, and of course the kitchen and dining room for meals. Kevin told us memberships cost $1.00 a year. The washrooms are lit with UV bulbs to discourage shooting up in them, and there are no spoons - a handy shoot-up tool - in the cutlery trays. We lined up with area residents for a choice of chicken-mushroom pie or rice with curry sauce, and green or beet salad. It was served in generous platefuls, very yummy and only cost $1.75 (cooked by volunteers).

A reminder to even the most stoned

Later as we made our way to the Dodson, we passed the infamous Insite clinic (where people can inject illegal drugs in a supervised and clean environment using sterile needles). Next to the Dodson is a recycle place, which was busy with men and women doing trades of all kinds on the street. Across the street from the Dodson is the Pennsylvania Hotel - an old hotel which the government took seven years to renovate and now contains 44 suites of social housing (it was a big good-news item on the six o-clock a couple of nights ago)

The Dodson - the building with the star

The day was eye-opening and in some ways depressing. The thought of people being out in the cold rain all day and all night is hard to fathom. As Gordon Wiebe said, people in the Downtown Eastside are tough.

The trip gave us lots to think about. Issues are tough and solutions are complex. Would you be able, in good conscience, to run a rooming house where people don't have to be off drugs to be allowed to stay? What are the options? We had a long discussion when we got home (all the while giving thanks for creature comforts - coffee, muffin and the cozy fireplace).


Belinda said...

Dear Violet,
Wow. Praise God for servants that heed the call. Thank you for telling their story. I am humbled.

Thank you SO much for the link to Whatever He Says. I am honoured--and again, humbled.

violet said...

Thanks for reading, Belinda, and leaving a comment. About the link - but of course. I'm so proud of all the blogs I read.

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