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Drug use absent from discussion on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

by Archives March 31, 2009

Even though drug trafficking and addiction are two of the biggest problems facing Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, those issues were purposefully ignored at a panel discussion about Canada’s worst slum.
Housing and homelessness took centre stage at the event, entitled “The Fix” and held on a Vancouver university campus, because organizers failed to book a drug expert.
Bruce Haden, a prominent Vancouver architect who has lived in the DTES for the past seven years, said he was astonished that none of the panelists mentioned drugs during the opening presentation, held in Vancouver’s west end.
The Downtown Eastside is considered the poorest area code in Canada. The area has an extremely high rate of homelessness and an estimated 5,000 injection drug users concentrated within a ten-block radius. The area is also home to North America’s only safe-injection facility, Insite.
Vancouver and Downtown Eastside residents who attended the discussion made it clear they believe drugs are the most immediate problem in their area.
Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason suggested diffusing the population so that addiction and homeless communities wouldn’t be concentrated in a single, small area. Responding to this suggestion, Gregory Henriquez, a panelist and Vancouver architect, asked Mason to imagine a different situation, where the question was why so many rich people live in Shaughnessy, Vancouver’s most affluent neighbourhood.
“Imagine a forum here all about Shaughnessy,” Henriquez said. “And all the experts here are from the Downtown Eastside, and they are all talking about how to fix Shaughnessy. It’s all crazy when you think about in those terms.”
The number of homeless in Vancouver more than doubled between 2002 and 2005, according a city survey.
One question that arose was whether subsidized housing and shelters should be built exclusively in the Downtown Eastside.
Henriquez is currently working on a project called Woodwards, a complex that combines retail space with market and subsidized housing. University of British Columbia professor of urban slums Aprodicio Laquian said he believes the solution to the Downtown Eastside is deciding how it fits within the city of Vancouver, instead of treating it as its own entity. He said there shouldn’t be such a dramatic separation between rich and poor residents, and projects that combine market housing with subsidized housing may help break down the barrier.
“The Fix” came with less than a year until the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, which have been a source of contention. Though some Vancouver residents fear the Downtown Eastside will be a blight on the Games, and the city’s reputation, others have said that is the wrong attitude. Katrina Pacey of Barrister and Solicitor Pivot Legal, a non-profit legal advocacy organization in the Downtown Eastside, said the people living in the area should always be taken into consideration. “We want to make sure that the health and wellbeing of the community is protected,” she said. “As opposed to just covered up when the event comes to Vancouver.”
Other residents have expressed resentment about the money being spent to host the Games, saying the budget should instead be spent trying to clean up the slum.
Over the past 10 years, $1.5 billion of both public and private funds have been spent in the Downtown Eastside, but there have been few tangible results.
At the end of the panel, Haden said he was happy people were talking about the drug issue, but the panel’s disregard of the major issues tainted his opinion of the event. “It was OK,” he said.

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