“the horrible secret that is the downtown eastside”

February 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Disturbed and confused because the city which to many merited the accolade of “most liveable” harbored within it such poverty, I wrote in november last year:

When I first came here, one of the things which struck me were the mountains, visible from almost any part of this city.

But what also struck me was the contrast between the mountains and the city. The former stood assured in its beauty, the latter was bustling in empty aimless restlessness.

As I shuttle to and from vancouver campus at night, I come across the people whom I suspect the authorities intend to hide away in chinatown when the olympics arrive. They sit beside me, across me, and stand in front of me. The one long-haired middle-aged man sitting beside me reeks of marijuana. His ringtone is some kind of rock music, and he answers his phone calls in a drawl. Every time the bus jerks, the small gap one would usually keep with strangers closes and I wince as I find myself unwillingly leaning onto him. The smell of marijuana makes me nauseaus and I want no physical contact with one with that smell. I feel bad for bearing such negative feelings towards him.

The man across me spends the whole bus ride talking into his handphone. His handphone moves from in front of his mouth when he talks into it, to beside his ear when he is supposed to hear something. The movement is constant, but the time spent hearing anything at all is suspiciously short. He talks about his day, what happened, how other people reacted. I don’t hear everything, but it sounds like it’s all exciting. Sometimes he laughs. The conversation is too frequently interjected with ‘you know what I mean?’s. I suspect no one ever did know.

In the time spent in silence as I commute to and fro, I wonder how these men came to be the persons they are. I wonder how a city which people have told me attracts wealth from all over could harbour such poverty. I wonder how there could be a culture of indifference. In class, my atheist professor talks of love, or the lack of it. It is as if believing in its existence is almost laughable.

The “horrible secret” that the city for the olympic harbours has come into the spotlight. Misha Kleider, an ordinary student, attempts to rough it out at the downtown eastside and he documents it in Streets of Plenty. At first, the film seems to do little to explain what I saw in Vancouver. While Kleider easily found lodging, clothes and welfare, the people I saw were shabbily dressed and smelled of marijuana. However, watch on as Kleider attempts panhandling and stays at the foulest of shelters, where vomit is almost everywhere and so are diseases, and one realises that the picture is not as all rosy. Addiction is a big problem. Panhandlers, Kleider realises, are there because of some issue or another. Amidst everything, one detects a sort of dignity in the homeless, and the wish to reconcile  their way of life to what is socially acceptable. The man out of jail emphasises that he does not steal anymore. The man who refuses to work for someone else is not lazy, he just wants to get paid for what he’s worth.

I’m surprised. Who are these people really? And…are they more like us than we dare to think, a reflection of the very society we live in rather than misfits?

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