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Eastside, Westside

In this country, the gap between rich and poor can be as great as the distance between first and ninth place

 By Martin Silverstone

THE STARK POVERTY of Vancouverís Downtown Eastside seems more than a little out of place in a country that has been anointed, for the sixth year in a row, the best place to live in the world. The criteria for the United Nations index must seem skewed to those women who live by their wits in an area said to be the poorest postal code in Canada. Of course, longevity, literacy, level of education, and per capita revenue are all legitimate ways to rank nations. And although we canít claim the richest economy and our social programs arenít as extensive as some European nationsí, Canada performed high enough in each category to claim top spot. Despite this showing, however, governments continue to be flustered by the conundrum represented by the eruption of the HIV transmission rate in Vancouverís Downtown Eastside.
   Not that there arenít other places that have faced the problem of a deadly disease running rampant through a tightly interwoven population. Only a short bus ride from the Eastside is concentrated Vancouverís gay community banded together to respond quickly. A high profile education program helped residents modify their sexual behavior. The result? Transmission rates dropped dramatically.
   If one community can do it, why not another? After all, cocaine is nothing new. It was the darling of the yuppie elite, where a couple of snorts would heighten the heady feelings of control that came with living in the fast-paced, big-dollar climate of the early 1980ís. In the hands of people whose lives have spun out of control, however, cocaine is deadly. And donít fool yourself; it is about control. Many young professionals have been able to beat their addiction, thanks to the support of family and friends and elaborate drug clinics. But most of all, these educated, often affluent individuals, like many members of the gay community, believed they could effect change.
   This belief in being able to make a difference is sorely lacking in those who have been dealt a bad hand. Many are mentally ill, some just plain lostóthey are drawn to the Eastside because itís a cheap place to live and they are poor. Thereís no pretty way to put it. Of course, the number one country in the world doesnít ignore the poor palliative programs such as needle exchanges, drop-in centers, and provincial mental outreach units are proof of that. No, we donít ignore them, but we do seem to readily accept that there will always be poor.
   A neighbourhood that faces any kind of problem must resolve it with all the resources it can muster. Itís all too easy to dismiss the Downtown Eastside as an area of chronic problems without a strong enough community to act on them. But there is a communityóone as strong and vibrant as any other. The Downtown Eastside Residents Association, for example, fights for more social programs and struggles to lead this neighbourhood out of the dark. Itís a tough battle convincing people to help, especially when they ask, How bad can things be in the number one country in the world? Well, according to the same rankings that put us on top, things can be pretty bad, because Canada ranks ninth in the category on how nations treat their poor.
   On a cool day this past May, a crowd of a hundred or so marchers walked down Hastings Street to Crab Park to remember the missing women of the Eastside. As they stood and listened to friends speak of those gone missing, they could clearly see the plush hillside estates of West Vancouver. The upper-class residential neighbourhood wasnít far away, just a short boat ride across the sparkling waters of Burrard Inlet. But for the women who have disappeared, the luxury homes could have been a million miles awayóalmost as far as the distance between first and ninth place.

 

Martin Silverstone is the senior editor at EQUINOX 

 

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016