In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside
According to many international surveys, Vancouver is one of the “best” places in the world to live. Yet, at its centre is an area (approximately 100 square blocks and 20,000 residents) that represents the poorest postal code in Canada, and arguably in North America. It is home to shelters, poverty, systemic abuse, mental illness, North America’s first “Needle Exchange,” and the only place in North America with a Supervised Injection Site. It is peopled with addicts, refugees and the homeless. Sex trade workers, mostly aboriginal women, regularly disappear. If you live here, survival is your day job. It is a war zone of the like we are conditioned to believe only exist in underdeveloped countries.
The future of the area is polarized by politicians and community activists. Some want the area cleaned up and gentrified. They want to relocate residents to “normal” Vancouver neighbourhoods, reinforce the police presence and step up the “war on drugs”, which others say amounts to a “war on people” who have mostly suffered abuse all their lives. They want more needle exchanges, housing alternatives, community infrastructure, and outreach health services that nurture a safer, healthier community, with more compassion and less punishment. Stephen Harper’s Conservative Government has tried twice, unsuccessfully, in front of Canada’s highest court, to close-up the “Safe Injection Site.”
Moving beyond the political turf war and the litany of promises aimed at dressing up Vancouver for the Olympics, this story digs deep into why and how people come to live here forcing a contrast with the common perceptions of those who live outside. It is about illuminating people’s minds and challenging fear-based beliefs with evidence based facts. Do needle exchanges increase drug use? What happens when mental hospitals close? How do stigmas stymie outsiders’ good intentions and honest desire to solve poverty, mental illness and addiction? The answers are demonstrable and surprising.
Perhaps most surprising is the revelation that ‘a sense of community’ is the greatest healer in the postal code. Whether they arrived from someplace else or grew up on Hastings St., the Downtown Eastside is the only home many of its citizens have known. Some invest deeply. There is a free dental clinic, an art gallery for local artists, a community court and judge, even a community bank where members can open an account or cash cheques without having an address or proper identification. Some visionaries, like The Portland Hotel Society, believe they live in a unique and accepting community that is not beyond help. Their pioneering social model is aimed at rescuing people from what a local poet calls “the streets of displacement and the buildings of exclusion.”
A risk of the documentary tradition is that it can strip grace and dignity from people confined to institutions, for prejudice, like beauty, is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. But for me, making photographs is a partnership between the photographer and those who live in front of the lens. The camera doesn’t separate us – it unites us and enables me to share the beauty and dignity – the spirit – that I see in the people I photograph. In the process of photographing, my subjects usually become my friends. In my practice, photography offers respect, a voice and, as best I can, an embrace.
The goal of my work is to change how we see so a greater percentage of our society is able to truly look at hardship and suffering. Fear and stigma need not be our first inclination. A new set of eyes (this is what photographs are), acclimatized to the hardships of the marginalized, can turn aside fear and plant the seeds of hope and recognition. The survivors of the Eastside are sensitive and perceptive men and women who struggle to maintain whatever dignity society affords them. This story illuminates their struggles at the extreme end of a continuum upon which we can all, more or less, locate ourselves.
Here is tribute I wrote to Tomo, a dear friend who died from drugs
It was an honour to be your friend Tomo.
You were wise beyond your years.
We made no judgements and had no secrets.
We agreed on almost everything. That it was better to be miserable with the truth
than flit from flower petal to flower petal thinking everything is fine.
We shared ourselves, our vulnerabilities, feelings and memories, and all that love.
A gift I will always cherish.
We were soul brothers.
I’m am so grateful and so sad.
I just want you back.
But I’m not special.
You were Tomo with everyone.
Everyone you met was touched by your gentle charm and gracious eyes.
You were a killer on the dance floor. It was hard not to hug you.
I look around now at your friends and see so much caring, respect, and grief.
You were so loved Tomo.
Your sensitivity was extreme.
And you felt the weight of world’s moral injustices.
“Drugs weren’t your problem… they were your solution,” you said.
Your impeccable honesty and empathy were only matched by the self-loathing you suffered.
And the contradictions you wrestled with.
You understood the bigger picture. The challenges of addiction.
About how healing comes from telling stories.
Your work was to give and to help those most in need.
And so humble… So surprised to hear you were the kind of man I wished my daughter would marry.
Your brilliant films are healing stories for everyone.
You worked relentlessly at that, putting yourself out there. Busy, inside and out.
Keeping engaged, juggling distractions, determined to give your neural pathways time to mend. You were on a mission.
Each day was a new day, and you kept on with amazing tenacity and courage.
You were fighting so so hard Tomo. And feeling better and better.
Sparkling. Looking healthy and youthful, running, kick boxing, swimming….
You were magnificent.
You always walked tall.
Hurt was the last thing you wanted for others.
To die with so much of your song still inside you.
You never believed that it would happen to you—nor did I.
You told me that you “always try just a little at first.”
You would be here today Tomo, but for the ignorance that only sees what’s wrong with addiction, and forces those suffering from this devastation disease onto the streets for their medication.
Love was enough. You just needed more time.