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For 15 years, Sharon Patricia lived in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. A former sex worker and crack addict, she was raped, beaten and left for dead. She has seen people die on the streets, women disappear and people thrown out of their homes.
Patricia is now living on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia, but recently returned to her old neighbourhood for a visit. In two months she’s seen three dead bodies--a terrifying reminder of how deadly the Downtown Eastside can be.
“This place is no good,” says the 42-year-old grandmother, as she checks the message board at the Carnegie Community Centre. “There’s cockroaches and rats in the hotels, drugs in the alleys and the government isn’t doing anything to help these people.”
Patricia’s Downtown Eastside isn’t a pretty one, and although there are also plenty of positives about the neighbourhood, a recently released survey paints a bleak picture of what people in the Downtown Eastside endure.
In July, the city of Vancouver released the extensive Downtown Eastside Demographic Study of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) and Social Housing Tenants, the first census of the neighbourhood in six years and the first to include social-housing tenants with SRO hotel residents. Commissioned by the city, B.C. Housing and the Vancouver Agreement, the survey interviewed 1,300 residents and was compiled by three different organizations. In order to make interviewees as comfortable as possible and the survey as accurate as possible, residents of the Downtown Eastside conducted the interviews.
The Downtown Eastside constantly struggles with negative stereotypes, and the survey did little to dispel the myths. In some cases, the results were worse than many people believed.
Of those living in SRO hotels, 77 per cent have an income of less than $15,000 a year; 79 per cent have health problems, with 47 per cent reporting multiple health problems; and 52 per cent said they use drugs, with 28 per cent using frequently. Of those living in social housing, 72 per cent have incomes under $15,000 a year; 75 per cent have health problems, with 37 per cent reporting multiple problems; and 15 per cent use drugs. While abject poverty and rampant drug addiction are obvious to anyone who ventures into the Downtown Eastside, the extent of reported health problems appears to have caught the survey's administrators off-guard.
“People’s health is worse than it was during the [last] study [six years ago],” says Kathleen Boyes, executive director of the Neighbourhood Housing Society, which helped prepare the survey. “There was a lot of people who said their health was fine, but admitted to having HIV or Hep C. The health situation is pretty dire and I think it’s underreported. We’re talking about people with very fragile health conditions in one of the toughest places to live.”
The United Nations has reported that the Downtown Eastside has a Hepatitis C rate of 70 per cent and an HIV rate of 30 per cent--which puts it at the same level as Botswana. Perhaps most puzzling, however, is that the report was actually completed in April, but wasn’t released until the July long weekend. The delay has caused Downtown Eastside activists like Pivot Legal Society lawyer David Eby to accuse the governments responsible for the survey of trying to bury the negative results.
Martha Lewis, the executive director of the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre (TRAC) and the lead on the report, admits the survey was kept quiet. The concern, however, was not with the results themselves, she says, but with how the media might spin it, particularly the finding that only 16 per cent of SRO residents actually want to live in the Downtown Eastside.
Lewis says the problem is one of context--residents were asked only about current conditions and not whether they’d consider staying if the problems in their neighbourhood improved.
“If your only other option is to be living on the street, then having a room is pretty satisfying, but we don’t want that to read that it’s satisfactory and that’s all they need,” she says. “And when people say they would move away [from the Downtown Eastside], we don’t want that to be used to show that they’d rather not be there...it’s the housing they’re in, it doesn’t mean the area itself is not a community they want to be in.”
Indeed, the pressure to gentrify the neighbourhood is greater now than ever before. One of the most common arguments in favour of gentrification of the Downtown Eastside is that the situation is so dire that ‘something’ needs to be done. Advocates for and residents of the Downtown Eastside fear that this will give the city an excuse to tear down the condemned buildings--and put up condominiums current residents cannot afford.
Dan, a homeless man from Ottawa, has been in the Downtown Eastside since November. Despite the drugs and prostitution, his main problems with the neighbourhood are the long food lines, poor quality of food and the long lines at shelters that keep him on the street. Dan’s solution to fixing the problem is a simple one: build more shelters.
Patricia contends that more social housing needs to be built for people in the Downtown Eastside.
Neither Dan nor Patricia believes more condominiums are the answer.
A version of this article was originally published in Megaphone Magazine.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.