Facing Homelessness in Vancouver

The decades-long humanitarian crisis of Vancouver has long been relegated to one neighbourhood, the Downtown East Side. While homelessness and addiction persist throughout the Vancouver metro area, including “nice” residential neighbourhoods, the DES is unique in its frank and open drug use. Safe injections sites are deisgned to keep people safe. This latest propsal would bring an injection site to a traditionally wealthy neighbourhood, Yaletown. Residents of Yaletown are concerned by this proposal, according to an article by Vancouver Is Awesome titled “Downtown Vancouver Injection Site Proposal Draws Mixed Response.”

Employees and volunteers at safe injection sites are armed with boxes of Narcan, a life-saving drug that can revive people suffering cardiac arrest from drugs laced with dangerous synthetic chemicals, most commonly, Fentanyl. They are trained in first aid and ready to respond.

One concerned speaker at a city council meeting on Tuesday described “her observations of people using drugs on the street and how a man threw a milkshake at her after telling him not to smoke crack cocaine in front of children.” Of course, no one deserves to be assualted in public. But, let’s try this perspective.

You have lived on the streets for five years. You are exposed to the elements and stares of people every day. Some call you names in public, or record you on their phones and make degrading memes of you on social media. Walking on the hard cement all day, your feet are covered in blisters. You have not showered in more than one month. You have trouble keeping a pair of shoes for more than a few weeks before they are stolen. You have not slept in more than twenty-four hours. You have no reliable access to safe, clean drinking water. You have no phone to contact loved ones or 911. Even if you had a phone, you could not keep it charged, let alone prevent it from being stolen. You live under the constant threat of robbery, violence, and infeciton. In order to stave off brutal withdrawal symptoms, you use just enough of a certain drug, a drug that someone first gave to you as as a teenager. With no private space to use that drug, you are forced to use in public. Your life is public. Everything is on display and available for the scornful looks and judgment of others. Stripped of all comfort, safety, and dignity, you use publicly, and someone with all the resources in the world chastises you for it.

I have volunteered on the Downtown Eastside for about six months. Doing so, I have come to value privacy and quietude. Homelessness is a near constant state of chaos; privacy does not exist. With sirens blaring and traffic roaring at all hours of the night, a good night’s rest is nearly impossible; the insomnia only aggravates the stress of finding enough to eat, preventing withdrawals, and watching for any impending attack. Astonishingly, amidst so much hardship, many DES residents remain kind, compassionate, and hopeful.

Throwing a milkshake at someone is never appropriate. Though I ask, which is the better solution to such an issue: forcing users to use in another neighbourhood, still on sidewalks, in public washrooms, and parks? Public use increases shame and puts users at risk of overdose. Or, we could provide people a private space with trained health professionals on standby. A safe injection site would offer street residents three minutes of privacy and safety, two precious states of being that we, the housed, so easily take for granted. Such an establishment, by offering this bit of dignity, would likely prevent public instances of conflict and assault.

By Suzanne Pasch

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