In July of last year, I was in Vancouver with my grandchildren. We went to eat in Chinatown, which borders a part of the city known as the Downtown Eastside. It was a beautiful, cool afternoon. In a fairly small area, there were hundreds of people standing around talking and dozens more sleeping on the sidewalks. It looked like Vancouver just stopped--and something else began. For the next week, my grandchildren, aged 10 and 12 (who live in Thunder Bay and are 110 strangers to urban decay) asked questions about the people they had seen.
The Downtown Eastside has been a famous hellhole for years, and next year's Winter Olympics is giving it much-deserved publicity. A recent example is the multipart series in the Globe and Mail in February and March, according to which the area has a population of about 6,000 (14 per cent are Aboriginal) and has the highest concentrations of poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, poor housing, prostitution, petty crime and mental illness in the country.
A great deal of money has been spent there, and it's home to more social services than you can shake a stick at, but few think it's getting better. Jenny Kwan, the cabinet minister who led the then NDP government's efforts to improve conditions in the Downtown Eastside, said after a recent visit, "I have never seen such desperation on the streets. I walk down there ill the early hours ... and I am literally stepping over bodies" (Globe and Mail, February 14). With all the attention it gets, you would expect there to be some coherent plans to clean up the area. If they exist, I haven't found them.
Globe and Mail B.C. columnist Gary Mason warns that "fixing the [Downtown Eastside] ultimately means engaging in some kind of showdown with the collection of social agencies, poverty groups, activists of all stripes who have consistently opposed changes that upset the status quo," and who have sold us "the specious notion that any attempt to dilute the neighbourhood of its concentration of poor, addicted and mentally ill is an attack on the most vulnerable" (Globe and Mail, February 14).
Mason is likely talking about people like Jim Green, community organizer and one-time NDP mayoralty candidate, and Margo Fryer, founder Of a UBC program that operates a storefront learning centre in the Downtown Eastside. "I really don't like the word 'fix,'" says Green (Globe and Mail, March 2). He probably wouldn't like "clean up," "dilute" or "normalize" any better.