IMG_2401 (2)

Downtown Vancouver is well laid out, filled with green trees and parks, and contains shiny buildings that try not to obstruct the view of the looming mountains in the distance. The people are creatively dressed, ranging from business suits to those that others would identify as hippies. It is a bustling environment.

Walk a few streets to the East, to Hastings Street, and it feels like you are entering another city in another world. The trees disappear, the buses are less frequent, the shops have broken signs and barred windows. The entire atmosphere feels like Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent, and the crowd on the street matches. A group of people dressed in worn out clothing loiter around a corner. A woman sitting in a doorway shoots up.

I walked through the Downtown Eastside at 8pm a couple days ago, and it was striking. The area supposedly has one of the highest concentrations of HIV/AIDS incidences in the world, and the number of mental health issues and drug addictions parallels that. Amazingly, the problem is confined to just a few blocks. Two streets over there is a daycare center and park.

I’ve asked a few friends from Vancouver what they think should be done about the Downtown Eastside, and no one knows. The government has squeezed the area smaller over the years. They opened a safe injection site, which has helped lower the spread of HIV from sharing needles. But still Hastings Street is filled by addicts and those with mental health issues.

The challenge this area presents is certainly daunting, but that was not what stood out the most to me when walking through. Instead, I was struck by a deeply unnerving feeling. I felt out of place. I felt uncomfortable. I was on my toes. More than I have ever been when walking through some of the poorest slums in Africa. And I can’t figure out why.

Maybe it’s because the type of poverty is different. In African slums, large families live in tiny rooms with not more than a few dollars to their name. They take care of themselves as best they can despite a lack of opportunities and resources. In the Downtown Eastside, I didn’t find families struggling to make a dime. I found people combating their addictions and their health problems. They also lack opportunities and resources, and they are also trying to take care of themselves, but it manifests itself very differently. This could be just the people that I’ve seen, though. The ones on the street.

Maybe it’s because the conditions on the Downtown Eastside hit too close to home for comfort. I can relate to these people more than I can to those living in slums on the other side of the world simply because I come from a similar culture. I could realistically find someone I know living in the Downtown Eastside. It could be my friends and family. It could even be me. I have a much harder time seeing myself living in a slum half a world away.

Maybe it’s because I speak the language and can understand what’s being said. Maybe I notice the subtle differences and am aware that I should feel unnerved, while I am pleasantly unaware in Africa.

Or maybe it’s because, despite any warnings, I simply don’t expect to find the Downtown Eastside in, of all places, Vancouver.

Advertisements