journalism that swims
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Finding Shelter in Vancouver, BC

Plenty of help, but few freedoms in the Downtown Eastside. Last in a series on living homeless in BC.

Ryan Fletcher 3 Aug

Ryan Fletcher is a British/Canadian writer who recently graduated from UBC with a Master's degree in journalism. He currently lives and works in the UK.

[Editor's note: This is the conclusion of reporter Ryan Fletcher's series on living on the streets of Abbotsford, Surrey and Vancouver, B.C. An explanation of the inspiration for the series can be found here.]

I arrive in Vancouver late at night and lie down in the doorway of an affluent downtown apartment block. The rain is coming down in sheets. I don't have a sleeping bag or roll mat because I gave them away to a woman in Surrey who needed them more than I did.

I can manage without the sleeping bag, but laying on concrete without a roll mat is a problem. The cold earth drains any warmth from the body almost immediately -- you can really feel the energy move out of yourself and into the ground. It's also a great way to get hemorrhoids. For addicts too scattered to look after themselves, resting like this must just add to their exhaustion.

I get a few uneasy hours of sleep before the front door of the apartment block opens, and a woman steps over me out onto the street. Surprisingly she apologizes to me. I want to explain myself but anything I say huddled in the fetal position would sound ridiculous. Instead I pretend it isn't happening.

At 6 a.m. I decide to walk to the Downtown Eastside to find breakfast. I come across the First United Church, on the corner of Main and Hastings, which is open 24 hours and serves free food. There's storage in the basement for people to put their stuff, including space for shopping trolleys.

Inside it's dark and quiet. There's an overwhelming smell of feet. The main hall, or nave, is full of occupied bunk beds, as are most of the rooms inside the church. At capacity, it can shelter 350 people and never turns anyone away. Once someone vacates a bed, it's open to the next person. The mattresses are without sheets and covered in washable plastic. People keep their clothes on to sleep.

On the front wall of the nave is a large painting of a cityscape. In the middle of the picture, fitting in with the other elements of the image, is a thin unobtrusive black cross. There's compassion and understanding in the painting's message. I sit on the pew in the adjoining corridor, close my eyes and wait for breakfast.

By 8 a.m. a line of 70 or 80 people stretches from the canteen all the way through to the back of the church, which is still in darkness for the benefit of people who want to sleep. It is apparent that many here have been left behind by the outside world. Stutters, ticks, physical injuries, disabilities, outbursts and bad hygiene characterize the queue.

The scene is medieval in its intensity, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and I don't want to join it. I'm tired and weirded out. All the same, I get in line and move towards the doors.

In the dining hall, the Holy Trinity is represented by three totem poles in the corner. They're serving apple pie and coffee for breakfast. The bench rows are packed with people. "The Wall" by Pink Floyd is playing from two loudspeakers. I've come to expect a bitter message of repentance to swallow with my charitable meals, but not here -- instead there's just good music. Heads are nodding and a few join in the chorus: "All in all it's just another brick in the wall."

"If you don't eat your meat you can't have any pudding," repeats the red lipped woman in front of me, deathly white and emaciated. "How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?"

My eyes start to fill up so I leave my food half eaten on the table and go outside.


The queue for the Salvation Army day centre on Pender, which forms just before 11 a.m., is short compared to the many other line ups in the area. There are two sections: one for senior citizens, made up almost entirely of elderly Asian women, and one for everybody else, made up almost entirely of down-and-out whites.

Once inside there's coffee, TV, and board games. There's a shouting match between the down and outs and the old ladies, while the morning donuts are handed out. The down and outs are convinced the old ladies are taking more than one donut each. This same argument repeats itself three out of the four days I use the centre.

Matt is sitting near the door when I first arrive. He's a stocky 23-year-old with a shaved head, dressed in combat pants and a hoodie. We play chess, at which he soundly beats me. While I play someone else he reads South: The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition. After Abbotsford and Surrey, where I did not see a single game of chess or book other than the bible in the shelters and day centres I used, it is a relief. Vancouver's skid row may be drug riddled and destitute, but it still has culture.

Matt, from Winnipeg, is taking an "extended holiday" and has been traveling around B.C. and staying on and off on the DTES for eight months. He hitchhiked from Manitoba after quitting his job as a gas station manager. The traveling life is something he's used to from the road trips he took with his mom when he was younger. Matt knows living like this won't last forever, but for the moment is not dissatisfied with life on the DTES, which he finds interesting: "I don't ever go hungry. You could eat seven times a day if you wanted. There's good times and bad times. It's a really good picture of how life is."

At first he stayed at the Salvation Army shelter, but decided to move to the First United Church after a couple of weeks. He is traveling to "get away from structure" and thought the Salvation Army had more of whatever he's running from. "They want to indoctrinate you and the First United Church straight up want to help people." Matt's dream is to buy a cottage in Ireland so he can "settle down and get society to just fuck off."

I spend the next couple of days hanging out with Matt, who gives me a guided tour of life on the DTES for the non-addicted unemployed. We sleep in the upstairs at the First United Church (where I take my first shower of the trip, complete with syringe disposal box in the communal cubicle) and visit the numerous places in the neighbourhood where we can get free food and drink. Our time is divided between the boredom of waiting in line, which we have to do everywhere we go, eating, and engaging in menial entertainment to waste the hours.

Because we don't have any money, our lives are governed by the choices other people make for us. Arguments in the charitable establishments we frequent arise from the smallest of things -- I see people quarrel over an apple, a $2 debt, a place in line. Everywhere is cramped and people are tetchy. However, there's real community spirit -- people living in a permanent crisis pulling together as best they can.

Matt and I are outside the United Church waiting for the evening meal. It's cold but at least the rain has stopped. His friends Blue and Damian are with us. Blue is 18, with short black hair. She's run away from home in Newfoundland and tells me she suffers from bi-polar disorder. She met amicable long haired societal drop-out, Damian, 29, on the streets of Edmonton. They've been a couple ever since.

We're all listening to a girl named Diddy, who is telling us how she attacked her neighbour's front door with a knife after he told her to keep the noise down. The neighbour then called the police.

"He's nothing but a rat," Diddy complains.

"I hate it when people use that word," says Damien. At that moment Damian pulls a rat out of his jacket hood. "Mahoney's a rat. Not that guy."

Diddy's story is promptly forgotten as Blue and Damien show off the pet rats they carry about with them everywhere. Damian's rat is called Balls Mahoney, on account of his large testicles, while Blue's rat is Mahoney's completely hairless daughter Ugly. The rats have to be kept separate at all times in case they breed. They live under their owners' shirts, or are carried about in their rucksacks. At night they are each zipped in a rucksack for safe keeping.


One night Matt and I eat at the Union Gospel Mission on Cordova. After half an hour in the ubiquitous queue, 25 of us file through into a chapel and are ushered onto pews. We have to sit through half an hour of worship before we can we eat. A blonde haired man with a side parting, wearing a beige cardigan, slacks, and an Adolph Hitler mustache, is standing at the pulpit. He introduces himself as Dan.

"I get to preach at you tonight," Dan tells us.

Someone in the congregation lets Dan know about his similarity to Hitler, which he accepts with a wry smile. Hymn sheets are passed around and the Gospel volunteers at the back of the chapel, Dan the preacher, and the woman playing the piano in the corner, start the singing with "Amazing Grace." A couple of others join in, out of tune: "That saved a wretch like me." One man is drunk and singing at the top of his voice.

After reciting the Lord's Prayer, Dan begins to read the parable of the prodigal son. The congregation is fidgeting. Matt has put his earphones on and I can hear the tinny sound of another pair from the bench behind me. The guy on my left has pulled his hood over his face like he's trying to get some shut-eye. Over on the other side of the chapel the drunk is slumped with his head on the pew. Another person is making strange groaning noises at the back.

The only people who are paying any attention to what Dan is saying are the other members of the Mission, who seem engrossed in his tale of redemption. He uses theatrical facial expressions and sweeping hand gestures to get the message across, but his attempts at stagecraft just makes the situation more absurd, and I have to really prevent myself from laughing.

Others in the congregation are also finding it difficult to stifle their school boy mirth. One fellow close to me bows and shakes his head while putting his hand over his eyes as if he's shading them from the sun. After the sermon we file through into the canteen and are served breaded liver with cinnamon buns for desert.


It's 11 p.m. on East Hastings. A woman named Mine is on the corner near the bottle recycling depot, wearing large expensive earphones adorned with a skull and cross bones motif. She's 25, pretty, substantial and outgoing, and wears a white and pink puffer jacket. She's sitting on a black folding chair as if she's on a seaside promenade, as a sea of junkies surges around her.

This grimy part of Hastings is where the addicts come to buy drugs and sell what they've acquired during their relentless search for money. During the day it's awash with people selling stolen supermarket food, household goods and anything else that might fetch some cash on the street. At night the trade is mostly limited to drugs.

As chance would have it I'd met Mine a few weeks before in the Cambie pub, where she was having a drink.

"What do you do for a living?" I asked her in the pub.

"A little bit of this, a little bit of that," she said.

"So you're a criminal?"

"Yeah. I'm a drug dealer on Hastings."

"You stand on the corner and hustle crack?"

"No, I have other people to do that for me."

She knows Dee, the scary dealer I met in Surrey. Mine, like Dee, is native and part of Redd Alert, who have a strong presence in the area.

Back on Hastings, Mine directs customers toward two aboriginal girls in their early twenties, who carry the drugs. Neither of them look like they're using. They take the addicts down the alley behind us to do the deals and return to give the money to Mine. Rose, a middle aged woman in a wheelchair selling cigarettes at three for a buck, is keeping a look out for the cops. Everyone seems relaxed.

I say hello to Mine and she recognizes me. I tell her what I'm doing and she grabs my crotch, runs her hand up over my stomach and chest to check for wires, and asks if I'm RCMP. I assure her I'm not a cop and show her my notebook. She takes my pen and writes "They just stole" in neat handwriting in one of the pages.

"You look like a cop," she says.

Over a week of not bathing or changing my clothes is enough to blend into most of the environments I've come across, but to Mine, who depends on her wits for survival, I still have the look of an outsider. "Come on, let's go over here," she says.

We walk across the road to the steps of the building opposite, where a group of dodgy looking Latinos are hanging out -- presumably selling drugs.

"Sit down here," she commands, pointing to the steps.

We sit and I put her ear phones on to see what she's listening to. It's John Lennon's Imagine remixed with a rap song. As a joke Mine begins touting me to passing trade as "rock hard pink bubble gum."

For a moment I forget that she's a drug dealer belonging to one of Canada's deadliest street gangs -- she's just fun to hang out with. Mine doesn't do drugs. "I wouldn't make any money if I did." She tells me Dee is at the other end of the block.

"She tough, but she gets beaten up a lot," Mine says.

"You're not like her," I say.

"If I need to be like that I can. I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt first. But I don't trust anyone."

We walk back over the road and she tells me to sit in the chair and hold her handbag. A squad car comes past and I ask her about the dangers of getting arrested.

"Most of them run if the police come. Me, I stay where I am," she says and then gestures like she's giving me a gift. "Jesus loves you."

One of the mules, a girl called Bones who has long curly hair and penciled eyebrows, starts to laugh, and agrees: "Yeah, Jesus loves you."

Mine explains that she keeps a few of the Christian pamphlets handed out by the preachers on Hastings, and pretends to police that's what she's doing. She shows me her new tattoos. "Loyalty" on one wrist, "honour" on another. Bones has the same tattoos in the same places.

They tell me they both have "brothers" in Redd Alert. Bones' brother is coming out of prison soon and she shows me the new jeans she bought for him from an addict. The idea of a family is central to the girls' definition of the gang.

"I'm like the mother," Mine tells me, "that's what people say. I want them to do good -- except in a bad way."

When the police begin to show more of a presence on the street, Mine and the other girls decide to call it a night, so I go to speak to Dee. She's working around Pigeon Park, a small square before the Downtown Eastside turns into the fashionable Gastown neighbourhood.

I find her sheltering in a doorway opposite the park. She looks strung out and it's obvious she's using the drugs she's supposed to be selling. The flash glamour the other Redd Alert girls exude is markedly absent. I say hello but she's not interested unless I'm buying.

At 1 a.m. I see her farther up Hastings, standing near the intersection with Main. She's with a bunch of men who are shouting and arguing amongst themselves under the neon glare of a bar front. She moves away from them and goes towards an ambulance that is picking someone up outside of Insite, the safe injection centre. There's a small group gathering to watch what's going on. I walk over and ask her how everything is going.

"Good," she lies. "You better get out of here. My boyfriend's coming."

She looks vulnerable and lonely standing there in the cold yellow street light watching the ambulance, very different from the aggressive and dangerous woman I'd met in Surrey. I wonder how long she can carry on before she ends up crouched behind a dumpster down an alley -- or worse.

Whatever she's done as a criminal in this netherworld, where labels like good and bad, family and stranger, perpetrator and victim, are as changeable as the weather, she doesn't deserve that. No one does.

It's late and I can see that Dee is edgy. I don't want to bother her, and I need to get out of this interminable rain, so I move on.  [Tyee]

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