By Jim Poling Sr.
One delight of living in Vancouver many years ago was dinner at the On On restaurant in Chinatown.
The food was fabulous and plentiful, and sometimes we walked it off with a stroll through the Downtown Eastside, now referred to as the DTES.
The DTES was scummy back then; strewn with druggies, drunks, the mentally ill and people just down on their luck. Giving our kids a glimpse of the DTES after an On On outing was a lesson in what they did not want to be, and where they did not want to end up, when they grew up.
To me, the Downtown Eastside was another slum soon to be cleaned up; transfigured by good government and a society that cared about people who needed help.
What a stupid assumption! Today, so many years later, there has been no cleanup. The place is worse than it ever was.
DTES now is the poorest, most wretched neighbourhood in Canada. There probably are not many more dreadful places anywhere on the planet, and that’s saying something.
Here’s one example of the depravity we Canadians allow to exist, and grow, in a section of our own country:
The example is a video, posted on Facebook and now in the hands of Vancouver police, showing a woman being raped in broad daylight on the sidewalk of a DTES main intersection.
The story of the video rape was made public by Daphne Bramham, a Vancouver Sun journalist and a former colleague of mine. Her story also tells of reports of women being held hostage, raped, brutalized and even shot in a DTES homeless camp.
Many other stories have been written about DTES depravities and conditions over the years. They have noted that the median annual income of the DTES population is $13,600, compared with $47,200 for Vancouver as a whole.
Also, DTES residents living in SROs (Single Occupancy Rooms) are eight times more likely to die than the national average. And, the vast majority of SROs have been found to have bedbugs, cockroaches and fire code violations.
The sub-human conditions of Vancouver’s DTES have not escaped international attention.
Back in 2011, the New York Times described the area as: “a shock even to someone familiar with the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1980s or the Tenderloin in San Francisco.”
“Just be careful not to stray too far south of Gastown into the city’s notoriously squalid and poverty-stricken notorious Downtown Eastside, where drugs and prostitution are rampant,” the Daily News of Egypt wrote back in 2010 as Vancouver invited the world to the Winter Olympics.
Last August the Vancouver Courier wrote about tourists from cruise ships being afraid to visit the Downtown Eastside. A German coupled hurrying out of the area said their son saw discarded needles on the sidewalk and was afraid of stepping on one.
Even celebrities have commented with disgust on the DTES.
Rapper Snoop Dogg went on Instagram back in 2016 to call the DTES ‘Terrible.”
“You need to clean this up,” he said.
A few months back, former Toronto Raptor Danny Green called East Hastings Street in the DTES the “worst street in North America, in terms of druggies.” That was after two of his bags were robbed during a charity fund-raising trip to the city.
Some travel websites, including smartertravel.com, have warned travellers to avoid parts of the Vancouver Downtown Eastside.
Why do we allow this situation to exist? Vancouver is a wonderful city, a terrific place to live and a place for all Canadians to take pride in. Yet a good chunk of its core is a human hellhole many of us choose to ignore.
Its underlying problems are complex. Possible solutions are complicated and controversial, but governments, politicians and social agencies have had decades to find them and clear up what amounts to a national scandal.
Writer Daphne Bramham sums it up in her recent column on the DTES:
“On Vancouver’s drug-addled Downtown Eastside, chaos and depravity have become so normalized that there is no humanity left.”
No humanity left. How can Canadians let this continue?