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.