Down & Out on the DTES

I’ve been in Vancouver for a while now and one of the things I am simultaneously ambivalent towards and shocked by is the Downtown East Side.

The neighbourhood is a whirlpool that attracts broken people from across Canada (and I don’t mean “broken” as an insult; the horrors that these people have faced are arguably unrecoverable; read here). Since I work here, I’m regularly exposed to scenes of deprivation and wretchedness that are unimaginable elsewhere in Canada (hell, in most of the world…).

But the truly scary thing is that you become immune to it; you simply stop being shocked by the truly bizarre things you see on a daily basis. Things that would cause civic outrage elsewhere simply being the banality of everyday life.

Here’s a snapshot of different events I witnessed in August alone. I almost lose track of these things. How would your city respond?

  • A tourist family is walking down Carrall trying to find Dr Sun Yat Sen Gardens. They look down the alley and see two men in the midst of a drug deal. Money is changing hands; pipes, pills and weed are arranged like a shop on top of a dumpster
  • My tech partner and I go for a coffee. As we pass a doorway we notice the junkie slumping in it. His hands are covered in blood and he’s injecting a needle in his hands (presumably the only place he can find a vein); his hose lies on the ground. It’s 11 am on a weekday.
  • A man walks across Cambie so high that he can’t move in straight line. His feet have become lead and he’s lost the ability to talk; all he can do is moan in ecstasy as the heroin courses through his veins; we pedestrians hope he won’t walk into traffic.
  • A woman stands over a man on Hastings. She repeats her refrain over and over again like a prayer: “Can you hear me? Do you need me to call an ambulance?” He’s lying on the concrete, visibly intoxicated this Tuesday afternoon and possibly in danger of rolling in front of a bus.
  • The man stands in the middle of the sidewalk clutching his crotch but it’s too late. He’s soiled himself. Urine streaks his pants and trickles out his pant leg, meandering towards the gutter. He groans a low curse to himself.
  • The buzzing noise is piercing and out of place. This is, after all, a park and war memorial. Glancing around I notice the source: a thin angry-looking man is having a tattoo applied to his face; his friend wields the needle and for some reason they’ve chosen to do it in the public space.
  • Four police cars litter the intersection – but there are no police to be seen. Further down the block another four squad cars have jumped the sidewalk; a line of police tape cordons off two buildings. An office attempts intimidation with an enormously overpowered machine gun. An hour later they’re all gone and it’s as if nothing ever happened.

This happens literally every day.