Two Different Worlds
In Vancouver for the Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness meetings this past week, I took opportunity to cross the water and go downtown. Outside eating a bagel breakfast in Yaletown, the city was waking. I saw some BMW’s, Jags and even a Rolls Royse Silver Shadow coming and going in preparation for the day. One billboard for condos particularly struck me, with the scale of prices listed, starting at only $499,000 to $6 million. I wonder what the condo fees are for a six million dollar condo.
Things changed as I headed for the East Side. The route I took didn’t gradually change from rich to poor, it was paff! – Poverty all at once. Extreme and systemic this poverty was unlike any I had ever seen in Canada. Similar elements everywhere, but all dwarfed by the overwhelming intensity of concentration.
People experiencing homelessness and abject poverty, everywhere, in overwhelming numbers. Laying on the streets, sometimes beside grocery carts that looked like they were just filled from the town dump, people with nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to look forward to were ‘just there’. Folks with mental health issues mumbling to themselves, ranting incessantly, many just staring into nothingness. Milling in small groups or lined up along the walls of buildings at the back edge of the sidewalks, people seemed to be waiting for something or nothing.
I found myself at Carnegie Centre, corner of East Hastings and Main at the Carnegie Community Centre. It was a library, a drop in, and a multi-service facility. Some fellows were playing pool downstairs, small groups of men drinking coffee and reading free newspapers. Outside was a patio with a five foot rod iron fence around it. I bought a coffee and sat with the guys on the patio. So far, at the Centre it was ‘regular’ and expected, but what happened next was not.
Outside the patio, on the street, the wheelers and dealers were doing business. I have never seen intensity of drugs and dealing drugs with such blatant disregard for anything or anyone. I watched for over an hour as people came and went, rolls of money changed hands, pills or packages exchanged and notes taken – who was fronted what. Dealers would swagger over with John Wayne walk and ‘in your face’ make deals and bargains: its business, working the streets, its Wall Street, East Hastings and Main Street style.
I stayed too long. The layers of depravity and disregard for human dignity were overwhelming. Working girls paid their pimps, got some drugs and stagger away to the next trick. Addicts trying to get more drugs on front, with pleas and promises of pay back. No concern or care – just business.
I walked outside and stood on the corner. In just minutes I was ignored and in the midst of the whole scene. Fifteen feet removed from the patio view, an entirely different set of players – the same game. Across the street the same thing. I walked to west to the next corner – more. Further west to the recycling depot where people lined up with shopping carts of looted bottles and cans – more. I crouched and leaned against the wall and watched – same performance, different players. It was time to go.
Two blocks further and business, tourism and commerce ruled once again. Back to the Beamers, Jags and Porches. Prosperity and blessing. Construction and gentrification.
The impact of the 2010 Winter Olympics still imprinted on downtown Vancouver, but something very different imprinted on my heart and mind. I am still reeling in the aftershock.