Page last updated at 12:58 GMT, Friday, 18 September 2009 13:58 UK

Vancouver: Life on the edge

By Arlene Gregorius
BBC News, Vancouver

Run-down hotel in the DTES.
Many residents of the DTES live in single rooms in hotels like this one

Vancouver, host city for the 2010 Winter Olympics, is regularly rated as one of the best places in the world to live in.

But it does not feel that way in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of the city, described by some as "the worst slum" in Canada.

"It's a sewer of human misery," says Dr Rob Gordon, director of the School of Criminology at the Simon Fraser University in nearby Burnaby in Greater Vancouver.

The Downtown Eastside (DTES) is only a few blocks away from the Olympic venues that will host the opening, medal and closing ceremonies for the Games that start 12 February.

Walk around DTES and you see drug addicts sitting on pavements, rough sleepers and people queuing with supermarket trolleys full of recyclable rubbish outside a bottle depot, trying to make a bit of extra cash.

Enclave of deprivation

Jenny Kwan has represented the neighbourhood in British Columbia's provincial parliament since 1996.

"We have a homelessness crisis in this community...people with mental health issues, people who are very, very poor. Some suffered tremendous childhood traumas," she says.

Many of the residents struggle with several of these problems all at once.

The median household income in the DTES is $12,084 compared with the city's $42,026
About 64% of the residents in the DTES are "low income" compared with 27% for Vancouver
There are said to be about 5,000 injection drug users in the DTES, out of a population of about 18,000
About 90% of housing units are rental
The DTES is said to have the highest rate of HIV infection in North America (about 30%)

Statistics show that the DTES has a disproportionately high number of homeless people, of drug addicts, people with mental health problems and the unemployed.

It is thought that about 2000 locals may not have a fixed address, out of an estimated population of about 18,000.

The Downtown Eastside has historically been a place of cheap accommodation that suited transient seasonal workers, such as loggers or miners, in between stints in the woods or mines of British Columbia.

These loggers and miners returned to live in the DTES when they could no longer work, and were joined by permanent, low-income residents from elsewhere, who could not afford the more expensive rents of other areas. A pattern was set.

More recent trends also contributed, such as the closing of institutions for mentally ill people in the 1980s, the increase in illegal drugs and the loss of inexpensive housing in other neighbourhoods.

I've never seen it this bad. I didn't use to have to step over bodies
Jenny Kwan, MLA

Professor Aprodicio Laquian from the University of British Columbia says the concentration of services in the DTES acts as a magnet to people faced with mental health and addiction problems.

"It also conveniently 'saves' other sections of the metropolitan area from dealing with the problems," he says.

Residents of other neighbourhoods fight off proposals for projects for the homeless, addicts or mentally ill people in their areas, as they fear for the values of their properties.

On the other hand, supporters of the DTES fight off economic development as "gentrification" that threatens their way of life.


"I've never seen it this bad. I didn't use to have to step over bodies," says Ms Kwan. "I used to have to look under bushes to find homeless people, now I step over them."

British Columbia's Ministry of Housing and Social Development denies that things have got worse.

"There are no statistics to indicate that homelessness has increased in the DTES," according to the ministry.

Homeless people on the pavement.
Homelessness and sleeping rough remains a real problem.

Officals also deny claims that the homelessness problems are "being swept under the rug" by quick fixes like shelters, instead of long-term homes.

According to ministry figures, both the annual subsidy for social housing and the number of places are more than double what they were in 2001.

The Province has also bought 23 single occupancy hotel rooms, and says it is spending over $50m on renovating them.

Injection site

Drug addiction is another big challenge. The city has a four-pronged strategy to try to deal with it: law enforcement, treatment, prevention and harm reduction (such as minimising the spread of HIV/Aids).

But criminologist Dr Rob Gordon says that the strategy "has never been given a chance to flourish". He refers to the supervised drug injection site "Insite", the first of its kind in North America, where addicts can go and use sterile needles under medical supervision to inject their drugs. It is used by about 900 people.

Residents demonstrating in the DTES.
Residents of the DTES demonstrate to ask for more housing and dignity.

Dr Gordon says that some politicians have wanted to shut it down, and that the police have problems with it too. But, he argues, "the bottom line is that it's a perfect example of how drugs use should be tackled."

He believes drug addiction should be treated as a matter of health, not crime.

"They are wasting time, money, human beings while thinking that criminal justice will work", he says. "It won't. It's a health issue, or no issue."

Olympic legacy

Visitors coming to Vancouver for the Games will quite possibly stumble across the DTES, perhaps while walking from the popular Gastown to nearby Chinatown.

Some supporters of the DTES fear that the authorities will remove the homeless people out of sight, which the provincial government strenuously denies.

Others had hoped that the Olympics would be used to bring a lasting, beneficial legacy to the DTES. They fear that this chance has been wasted, and that the DTES will be left behind.

The Ministry of Housing and Social Development, however, points to the commitments that were made to ensure the Games would directly benefit the DTES, including the creation of more than 2,500 new social housing units.

DTES residents demonstrate with Olympics poster
At a demonstration, residents ask to benefit from the Olympics, too

But Professor Laquian argues that housing the homeless alone will not solve anything, because so many people in the DTES have so many problems, including mental health and addiction issues.

What is needed, he says, is well-staffed treatment facilities for those with multiple issues.

The DTES will cease to be kind of slum it is, he says, "only with more economic development, and a better mix of housing and social services. What some people call "gentrification" can be seen by others as 'inner city redevelopment'."

Will the Olympics make a difference?

"My feeling is that there will be some noisy demonstrations during the Games," he says, "but when they end, the problems in the DTES will continue as they have done in the past."


Watch Bill Law's video report from the DTES in Vancouver

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