The Next City
June 21, 1997
Close encounters among the homeless in Vancouver
I VOLUNTEER AT THE DOOR IS OPEN, A SKID ROW DROP-IN CENTRE located beside Oppenheimer Park, the moral centre of the downtown eastside of Vancouver. I thought I would learn a lot about compassion as a soup kitchen volunteer, but instead I learned a lot about human misery and hopelessness.
The downtown eastside makes up most of the V6A forward sortation area, which has the lowest median income ($5,900) of all 7,000 of Canada’s postal prefixes. Inevitably, a little of the squalor bleeds into the surrounding neighborhoods, like mine.
Once, while heating a pot of coffee on the stove, I heard loud, terrified screams coming from the alley outside my kitchen window. I thought someone was being murdered until I stepped out onto the back porch and saw a garbage truck driver laughing at a mucky looking hobo clutching a precariously tilted orange dumpster, 9 or 10 feet above the ground. The hobo shimmied down the truck’s steep windshield and gave the driver a forearm salute before he turned and strode indignantly away. The driver winked at me and then reactivated the hydraulic arms, tipping hundreds of pounds of trash into the noisy jaws of the enormous compactor.
I forgot all about that strange incident until a little while ago, when I was going through some clippings files from the sociology desk at the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library and came across two frighteningly familiar news stories.
“Transient escapes from trash trap” (the Province, August 20, 1989) described how a homeless man survived for three hours, compacted inside a garbage truck, as it obliviously made its rounds. A garbage dump worker accidentally rescued him mere seconds before he was about to be dumped into a pit along with a few tons of garbage. He survived with only a broken arm and hundreds of scrapes and bruises.
The next guy wasn’t so lucky. “Dead man found in garbage” (the Province, September 27, 1990) described how a machine operator at the Burnaby Incinerator found a body dangling from a garbage scoop. The investigating police officer speculated that the partially crushed, unidentified corpse had probably fallen asleep in a dumpster and was compacted to death. The only clue to the poor man’s identity were the initials SB tattooed to his forearm.
In 1996, Vancouver Police found 118 “sudden death” victims on downtown eastside streets, many of whom remain anonymous, since seemingly they had no relatives or friends to report them missing. But I suppose nameless corpses should not be surprising in a city that is supposed to contain between 1,000 and 3,000 homeless, depending upon which government survey or newspaper report you believe.
When I asked Brother Timothy MacDonald, the director of The Door Is Open, just how many homeless people he felt wandered Lower Mainland streets he replied, “Hard core homeless? Probably less than 350.”
When I asked why his guess fell so short of official estimates, he offered a story from his days in Toronto in the early ’90s, when he asked a reporter for the Star where he got his estimate of 10,000 Metro homeless for a story in a long Sunday supplement. The reporter referred him to a government agency’s report. When Brother Tim called the agency, it cited the Salvation Army, who then referred him to another charity, which claimed that the original source was Brother Tim’s own office. Someone along the way had made the number up, and it has been misquoted ever since — an urban myth.
“That’s why I hate it when people try and count the homeless,” Brother Tim complained to me, “you just can’t quantitate misery like that.”
MOST OF THE MEN AND WOMEN YOU SEE IN THE SOUP KITCHENS LIVE IN single occupancy hotel rooms and rooming houses. The number one reason for going to soup kitchens is simply “no money.” The second most common reason cited is “no cooking facilities,” which is very sad when you realize that in downtown eastside hotels, a hot plate or an electric frying pan alone rates as cooking facilities, and every window sill is a refrigerator.
In 1995, the downtown eastside had 6,037 single room occupancy units and about half as many illegal boarding house rooms. Over my years at the drop-in centre, I have visited many of these places, and all my tours show the same results.
You just don’t get much for $350 a month. Fat, cigarette butt-colored cockroaches scurry over every surface of every building. The light bulbs in most of the stairwells are burnt out or missing; the toilets in the communal bathrooms on each floor are usually plugged; the shower stalls, black with mildew, have no privacy curtains; and all the rooms are small (usually five by nine feet, the same dimensions as jail cells, unintentionally making many of the tenants feel at home). Several of the rooms were windowless, and so it must have seemed a little like living in a tomb, or a sewer.
The landlords seem to take as much rent as they can and put next to nothing back into their decaying buildings. In the last decade, every time the welfare rates increased, the rents rose to match the increase, but when welfare payments dropped by $50 in 1995, the rents stayed put.
The hotels and rooming houses are often 100 per cent financed, and many of the landlords use out-of-country addresses. I met one owner of two skid row hotels on the loading dock of a large downtown department store, where he worked as a shipper. He bragged that, officially, he was the building manager and his mother in the Philippines was the landlord. I guess such legal sleight of hand is necessary in a business where nearly all the hotels sell welfare rent receipts for $50. (One Hastings Street hotel managed 47 welfare rent cheques for its 32 rooms.)
Vancouver health and welfare authorities just don’t seem very interested in policing the slumlords, perhaps because they expect the hotels and rooming houses will soon be demolished, or redeveloped. The downtown eastside has lost over 4,000 units of low-cost housing in little more than a decade, mostly around its softening borders. Five or six city blocks of hotels and boarding houses along False Creek (the downtown eastside’s southwestern corner) were bulldozed for Expo 86 — and when the fair ended, a solid wall of tall, glassy, expensive condominiums was built in their place. Strathcona (the neighborhood’s southeastern rim) is rapidly being gentrified by yuppies, and highrise condominiums are under construction in Gastown (the northwestern corner).
The exuberant real estate agents in the Gastown condominium sales offices claim that the downtown eastside will be completely redeveloped within five years. When I asked one of them where all the people in the bread lines across the street will go, he glibly replied, “Surrey,” (Vancouver’s largest suburb). I guess the people moving into the luxurious, high-security buildings believe that, as long as their panoramic views face outward, they can ignore the problems of poverty knocking on their back doors until they migrate somewhere else.
MOST OF THOSE PROBLEMS STEM FROM HOTEL ROOMS and boarding houses that are not safe for their residents. Police respond to distress calls at certain Hastings Street hotels four or five times a day, and every door is pockmarked with boot prints and crowbar scars from generations of break-ins.
One old pensioner complained to me, “I got robbed four times last month. The last time, they tied me up and whipped me with an extension cord until I told them where I hid my wallet.” And I’ve heard many similar stories about poor people robbing other poor people. The downtown eastside — “Zone 3” to the Vancouver Police — suffers four times the robberies of all the other Lower Mainland zones combined. The neighborhood houses less than 3 per cent of the city’s population but provides more than 20 per cent of its murder victims and 44 per cent of the drug arrests. Zone 3’s criminal code offence rate is an unbelievable 540 per 1000 people, compared to a citywide average of 202.
And, frighteningly, such dismal crime statistics ignore the fact that crimes are much less likely to even be reported in the downtown eastside because victims fear retaliation. The old man who complained to me about being whipped reported none of his recent robberies.
Another trait of poverty is the fear of losing things. Sometimes people will fight, even to the death, to protect their meagre possessions.
One evening at the drop-in centre, I watched a wiry, middle-aged rice wino pick the pockets of his best friend after he’d passed out. I wasn’t the only one who witnessed the theft.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” one tough looking ex-con hissed.
“That’s low, man,” several other people muttered.
“Fuck off, and mind your own business,” the thief spat back. “You’re just pissed because you didn’t get to him first.”
Which was probably true.
But then his buddy regained consciousness, saw the crumpled $5 bill in his friend’s hand, and immediately guessed what happened. He let out a rage-filled bellow and charged after his pal, who was already running away. Cornered in the kitchen, the thief turned and started swinging both arms like windmills.
“Come on,” he shouted, “come on, and try it.”
He appeared willing to challenge all comers, yet I could also see the terror in his eyes. He had a coyote mentality — fantastically courageous and cowardly at the same time. He’ll run, but when caught, he’ll fight. In a heartbeat both men were rolling around on the floor, biting, and scratching each other.
But 15 minutes later, after we broke up their fight and Brother Tim and I had bandaged their wounds in separate corners, they were best buddies again. They left with their arms around each other’s shoulders, on their way to buy another bottle of ginseng wine with the disputed $5.
“I don’t get it,” I said to Brother Tim as we watched them leave, “they wanted to rob and kill each other a few minutes ago.”
“They’re friends of convenience,” Brother Tim suggested, “and that’s important. All human beings need someone to talk to.”
SLOWLY I GLIMPSED A LITTLE OF WHAT HE WAS TALKING ABOUT and noticed that plain loneliness explains why many homeless and very poor people are attracted to cold, urban ruins. When you’re lonely and broke, the bright lights and noisy excitement of a big city give your misery company; the many random acts of violence on skid row sidewalks become welcome distractions — live theatre and spectator sports. Prostitutes frequently fight publicly with johns and pimps, and the Hastings Street pubs host bloody brawls every day, all against a soundtrack of sirens from vehicles rushing to some new emergency down the block. (In 1996, the fire department responded to 3,146 downtown eastside fires, the police to 7,042 major crime incidents.)
And then there are all those big city conveniences. One guy actually told me, “When I came to Vancouver and saw all the fruit and vegetables in Chinatown, just sitting there on the sidewalk, I knew I’d never have to starve. I saw a lot of opportunities in the city, so I stayed.”
But that’s over in Chinatown, and he didn’t know yet about the merchant vigilantes who keep a collective eye out for punks like him. Downtown eastside streets are crowded and dirty, the food sold there more expensive than anywhere else in the city, and it is usually stale and of inferior quality. Kraft dinners, ketchup, wieners, potato chips, and candy bars seem to be all the corner stores stock for dinner. But since the neighborhood has no supermarkets, most people graze in convenience stores where the only thing sold cheap is the rice wine bootlegged from under the counter.
Poverty has become a much more personal issue for me since I have started hanging out at the drop-in centre. Instead of commuting numbly through the downtown eastside as I used to, now I know that Pete lives under that loading dock ramp, and Bill lives in that alley doorway. I consider a cardboard box in a weedy, vacant lot — or a shallow cave carved into the steep, berry bush-covered embankments of the Grandview Railway Cut — to be a legitimate address. And I have learned to differentiate a little between the various styles of homelessness. Only a small portion of the homeless shuffle around pushing shopping carts stuffed with all their possessions.
“Squatting” is breaking open a door or smashing a window and moving into some vacant building for a few days. Most experienced squatters start by constructing barricades of heavy junk — car doors, bed springs, bicycle frames, freight pallets — making their newfound space difficult to get into, and easy to get out of. The more junk they pile up, the less easily they can be evicted. If it is a “good” squat, and they can stay a week or more, they will steal garden hoses and run them from the water mains.
“Squatting stands for nothing, except for a temporary roof over my head,” one 17-year-old runaway told me. “Squatting is not a protest action like some people pretend. For most people, being a squatter isn’t something they chose to be.”
Many others live in vans and cars that barely run. They are forever limping from parking spot to parking spot, as the police harass them and move them along. And then there must be hundreds of couch surfers who are perpetually staying with friends and relatives: “Just for a couple of days,” or until “Welfare Wednesday,” or “the GST cheque comes in.”
For the truly down and out, there are several emergency shelters in the downtown eastside, but never quite enough cots to go around. During their busiest, coldest times of January and February, the downtown eastside shelters turned away 232 people in 1993, 338 in 1994, and 636 in 1995. And even if you are lucky enough to get a bed, the shelters are not restful places to sleep in, because the men who stand in line every evening outside The Look Out (40 beds), Triage (28 beds), The Crosswalk (25 sleeping bags on the concrete floor), Catholic Men’s Hostel (80 beds), or Dunsmuir House (10 emergency cots inside the Salvation Army cafeteria) are often exhausted, mentally ill wanderers, or sick, delirious, substance abusers.
In response to the increasing visibility of filthy homeless people on the streets, Vancouver city hall finances one important downtown eastside community service. At The 44 (44 East Cordova), people can get free delousing, showers, and clothes washing. The staff gives every visitor zip-lock bags containing shampoo and soap and disposable razors — and it rarely runs out of hot water or clean towels. The 44 even washes and folds your clothes while you’re bathing, and it’s open from 9 till 9 every day, so there is hardly any waiting in lines. Vancouver won’t house the homeless, but they’ll bend over backward to keep them clean and tidy looking.
WHILE TALKING TO HOMELESS PEOPLE, YOU SOON REALIZE THAT all those years of living completely in the present makes chronology difficult for them. They often can’t tell you if the event they are describing occurred last year, or five days ago. Everything is completely arbitrary; there is no emotional sequence.
“And such here-and-now philosophies can be very frustrating,” Brother Tim complained to me once, as he told me a story about giving a wool blanket to someone who was sleeping on the steps of the drop-in centre.
“It’s hard enough to have nothing to give a homeless person but an old blanket,” he told me. “But I got kind of pissed off when I opened up in the morning and saw that the blanket had been discarded in a puddle in the curb lane.”
And then, the same guy came back that night and asked Brother Tim for another blanket.
“Why didn’t you keep the blanket I gave you last night?” Brother Tim complained, “or at least you could have left it by the door so I could have brought it in, and it wouldn’t have been ruined, and I’d have something to give you now.”
“But I didn’t know I’d need it,” the man explained.
“Do those guys in the sandwich line ever think about their future?” Brother Tim wondered aloud.
The best insight into the shattered souls of the homeless that I ever heard came from one sandwich line patron who told me, “If you take the time to think about it, you gotta realize that homeless people are not stupid, cause nobody stupid is gonna survive on the street. You gotta be smart and strong when you’re homeless.”
He has been living “outdoors” ever since he lost his “good” factory job when the auto parts plant he worked in for 12 years closed and moved south. His name is Paul, and he is that type of quiet little bum nobody pays much attention to, even on skid row. When he talks to you, he never looks in your eyes; he peaks around you. Paul is so lonely, he is almost invisible; missing out on so much of life, living at the fringes, away from the action, unable to get through the riddles of his life.
Like so many others, Paul has become a non-person, his life cancelled retroactively, like an annulled marriage. One day he “disappeared” from his life and was slowly forgotten by his former friends, co-workers, family.
“I chose to live this way,” he told me once, “and now there is no way home for me.”
And then he wept as he told me how he had left his wife and mother in Hamilton when the unemployment insurance ran out. He actually believed when he abandoned them that he’d find a good job in a B.C. bush camp or a mine, send for his wife, and send money to his mother. But all his leads turned out to be rumors; he just started drifting, and he stopped writing postcards.
“That was about six years ago,” he told me. “I wonder what happened to them?”
IN VANCOUVER, THE ONLY CONSISTENT PUBLIC REACTION TO POVERTY is just the same as in most Canadian cities — we ignore it — which almost guarantees that some people will take advantage of poor people.
One night as I was walking home from the drop-in centre, I saw a man loudly arguing with Lil, a bag lady I know. I thought he was mugging her until I recognized his white pick-up truck parked at the curb. It belongs to a salvage company that cruises up and down the city’s alleys in search of shopping carts, which it returns to supermarkets for a small bounty.
“You can’t have it,” Lil was screaming as he overturned all her belongings into the gutter, “it’s mine!”
“Shad-up!” he snarled. “It don’t belong to you. You stole it.”
“But it’s mine,” Lil feebly protested as she stubbornly grasped the wire cage as he tried to lift it onto the back of his truck. He swore and gave Lil a shove and she tumbled over like a sack of rags.
“Stop it!” I yelled from across the street, and rushed over to help Lil up.
“Mind your own business,” the man muttered.
But as he tried to toss the shopping cart onto his flatbed again, I pulled it back down. I couldn’t help myself.
“That belongs to her!” I hissed.
Only then did he seem to notice that I was a foot taller and at least 80 pounds heavier than him.
“I don’t want any trouble.”
“Then get in your truck and leave,” I shouted.
“Look, I’m just trying to do my job.”
“Kick his ass,” Lil hooted, “kick his greedy little ass!”
“I don’t want to call the cops, but I will,” he muttered uneasily as he backed away.
“Go ahead,” I dared him.
And I guess he decided that the $10 Lil’s shopping cart would earn wasn’t enough to fight me for, and he angrily jumped into his truck and drove away.
“Does he do this to you often?” I asked Lil as I picked up her things, and she repacked them into her shopping cart.
“A couple times a week,” she complained, “whenever he finds me.”
“But can’t you report him to the police?” I asked her. “I mean, he assaulted you, I saw him do it, I’ll even be a witness.”
“What’s the difference,” Lil shrugged. “If it doesn’t kill you, I guess it makes you stronger,” and then she shuffled off with her rag- and cardboard-stuffed shopping cart.
SKID ROWS ARE THE DRAIN TRAPS OF SOCIETY, A MUCKY PLACE where eccentric people congeal, the only stable home for all the stubborn men and women who have slipped all the way through the solitary, obsessive grooves of life. Their sustained poverty cuts to the bone, and Canadian skid row landscapes have become so demoralizing and dispiriting, so numbing and humiliating that the lives shaped there really do become different. I don’t think that many of the fire and brimstone missionaries to the poor understand that.
Christian charities become established in skid row neighborhoods like the downtown eastside because there is a large need for them, and because they sincerely want to help in some small, Christ-like fashion. Creating and maintaining soup kitchens is a compassionate response to the shock of seeing hungry, homeless people on the streets — people who have so visibly fallen through the broad cracks of our welfare system.
But making the poor attend even the most benign religious service before feeding them, insults them. Harsh words like “sin” and “fornicator” imply that the poor deserve their fate — and by focusing on poor people’s bad behavior, the charities ignore the poverty causing the behavior and blame the victims. After all, who among us wouldn’t fornicate more casually, drink too much, and do hard drugs after having lived for long periods in such desperate poverty, without hope, with little faith in human institutions?
I think we overrely upon puritanical and statistical silhouettes of the poor because they help make a long line of hungry men queuing outside a soup kitchen seem a little less threatening, a little less like an angry mob gaining momentum for violence. And because hopeless statistics allow us to feel virtuous, outraged, helpless, as we drive by bread lines and do nothing.
And consequently, the poor know us better than we know them, and become the beast hidden within our jungle of statistics and preconceptions.
THE WORST PART ABOUT LIVING IN POVERTY IS BEING IGNORED, even in your own neighborhood. They film a lot in the downtown eastside because directors like the gritty reality of the disintegrating landscape, but they never hire any of the locals as extras. Not because they are unreliable, but because the casting people think they look inauthentic.
Vancouver enforces special movie-making bylaws regarding eating in plain sight of passers-by when filming in the downtown eastside. The city feels it is too cruel to eat catered hot food in front of starving people, but it is all right for them to smell it cooking.
There’s lots of other examples of government stupidity about poverty. The Good Samaritan Bill was recently thrown out of the B.C. Legislative Assembly. It was meant to allow hotels, restaurants, and convention centres to donate their excess food to food banks, Meals on Wheels, and skid row soup kitchens. All the soup kitchens pledged to purchase industrial freezers and fridges, take public health courses, and suffer regular inspections to remove the risk of food poisoning and the fear of litigation by the restaurateurs.
But then a well-intentioned “poverty rights” lawyer derailed the bill when he insisted, “Just because people are poor, you can’t deny them the right to sue if they get sick from the food that is served them.” And so the restaurants continue to throw their excess food into padlocked dumpsters, while the rest of us volley the blame back and forth and argue about who is really responsible for feeding the hungry and giving shelter to the homeless.
I VOLUNTEER AT THE DOOR IS OPEN BECAUSE I KNOW all that separates me from the homeless men and women I serve is a couple of pay cheques. After all the sad, true stories I’ve heard at the drop-in centre, my psyche’s us-and-them walls are not as tall as those of my middle-class friends.
Sometimes when I watch an ancient bag lady feasting on a sandwich of stale bread and gamey luncheon meat, I feel a little envious of her grateful here-and-now dependence upon providence. I am slowly learning the Christian values of giving and of open-hearted, non-judgmental acceptance, and also learning to appreciate the human talent for adaptation. I am learning to see the homeless as individuals who have been inventive in their struggles for survival.
I don’t know why that three years ago I spontaneously pulled my mountain bike up to the curb at the front of a long line of hungry men and asked a chubby man with a broom if he needed any help. Perhaps I signed on because I wanted to feel needed, or I wanted to make my own life more meaningful, or for some other equally selfish reason.
But I slowly learned just to sit still and let the world of the poor flow around me to get a sense of its moods and rhythms, and to ask questions, just as in any other world.
Soup kitchens are popular not because of their free food, but because they are one of the only places left for the poor urban nomad to find social acceptance — sort of like warm public living rooms where they are never treated as specimens of some disease entity. In soup kitchens, no one stares at people who may be pacing, laughing out of context, or talking to themselves. Everyone at a soup kitchen table is included in the general conversation — no matter how shy, drunk, insane, or obnoxious — perhaps because to have a problem in common is as close to love as some poor and homeless people are likely to get.