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Rights + Justice
Municipal Politics

In Photos: Life in the Downtown Eastside During COVID-19

Sarah Blyth captures her days at the Overdose Prevention Society during two crises: soaring overdoses and the pandemic.

Sarah Blyth 22 Oct 2020 |

Sarah Blyth is a frontline worker in the Downtown Eastside and a founding member of the Overdose Prevention Society.

These images were taken during phase one of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown on what is known as “zero block” located between Carrall and Abbott on East Hastings Street. It’s the heart of the Downtown Eastside.

At a time where we have been instructed by all levels of government to stay apart from one another, little to no option for social distancing exists for people facing poverty and homelessness. In these streets, it’s almost impossible to adhere to the rules.

This situation has exposed a systematic failure. People living on the fringes are constantly at risk and lack health-care access. They can’t afford supplies for weeks at a time, let alone days or even one day. That is a privilege.

People of the Downtown Eastside have a certain kind of strength, not always what they asked for, but it helps in times of crisis. COVID-19 is not the hardest thing people have gone through in this neighbourhood — it is probably in the bottom five of their immediate concerns. Things like housing, food, money, mental health and the overdose crisis that continues to kill people are top of mind.

Because of COVID-19, many groups and government agencies are finally coming together. Meals are being distributed, and more decent-paying jobs for local DTES residents have manifested. Finally, things like safe supply have been approved. It is taking time to roll out, but it’s nothing short of a miracle.

It takes a certain type of individual to work on the frontlines right now, knowing that social distancing is next to impossible, but we try in a place where hugs are what so many need. The ones fighting on the frontlines have shown incredible courage in the face of two crises killing simultaneously.

Below are my photos, with short interviews about them by Jen St. Denis.

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Sue Oulette was one of the first volunteers who worked at the Overdose Prevention Site when it was just a tent in an alley in 2016. She makes home-cooked food in her apartment and brings it to the site to nourish people at work. Oulette makes everything from crepes to mini burgers, cupcakes, French toast and spaghetti — and it’s an important way to care for people who often have no way to cook in their tiny single-room occupancy hotel rooms.
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Paige gets help from OPS staff after being attacked with bear spray, a common occurrence for women in the Downtown Eastside. 'Paige wanted us to use this photo to help other people,' Blyth said. 'She wants this to end for women, because it’s a really terrible experience.'
Downtown Eastside residents line up to wait to get into Pigeon Park Savings in late March, shortly after COVID-19 restrictions came into effect. COVID-19 restrictions had a devastating effect on the neighbourhood: closed borders made the drug supply more unpredictable and more deadly, while restrictions on visitors in many SRO buildings and the closure of some drop-in spaces made more people homeless.
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Nadja Themens gets ready for a day of work at the outdoor inhalation site at the Overdose Prevention Society, organizing everything she needs for a full day of saving lives and keeping spirits up. Themens is particularly skilled at diffusing conflicts. 'If anyone has any issues, she gets involved and tries to resolve them,' Blyth says.
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Mathew Schimpky volunteers at the Overdose Prevention Site, often going up and down the street cleaning the sidewalk. In this photo, Schimpky looks after a woman’s dog. 'It goes to show people are willing to lend a hand,' Blyth said. 'It’s another face of a hardworking person who helps people and does his part in the community.'
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Ken Foster can often be seen selling his paintings on East Hastings Street. Every time Blyth sees Foster, his hands are covered in different layers of paint, a reflection of his work and the many paintings he creates. Foster often paints the alleys of the Downtown Eastside, or other scenes from the neighbourhood.
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Don Durban is an Elder of the Downtown Eastside who often leads staff meetings with a land acknowledgement, stating that the Overdose Prevention Society is located on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish people. Here, in the middle of a workday, Durban wears full protective gear to protect himself from COVID-19. Health officials say Canada is in the midst of two health crises: COVID-19, and an increase in overdose deaths.

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