There I was.
Very cold, slightly wet, and if anyone had bothered to notice, one of the few people not showing signs of what is often described as a “high-risk lifestyle”.
But nobody seems to notice anyone new on the streets of the Downtown East Side.
Nobody cares who you are. Unless, that is, you have something they want.
And what people want here is heroin, fentanyl, or crystal meth.
“Don’t move to Hastings Street,” advised one of my friends when I told him I was moving to Vancouver.
“We were walking along Gastown one night when everything suddenly went ‘what the hell?'”
Except his language was more colourful.
Intrigued as I was by his comments, the neighbourhood never made the potential property shortlist when I moved here in August.
It wasn’t until my first day on the job at CKNW that I was introduced to the street in broad daylight. The first clue that this was not an area like any other was the painted 30 kilometre/hour hour speed limit along East Hastings Street. A bold declaration that here was the infamous street that had long ago surrendered the normal rules of civil life, to one of constant squalor.
That’s not its only capitulation to anything but normal; a half-naked man lying with his legs immobile in the gutter, the improvised street-side market stalls selling random junk, the aimless shuffling of hoodies, the teen-aged girl seemingly oblivious to it all.
This part of Hastings Street in Vancouver’s DTES is a brutally constant oddity for those from Vancouver; a two minute commute through a neighbourhood like no other in the city.
Night should be different, night is when everything suddenly goes “what the hell”
But is it really as dangerous as everyone says?
My night on the streets of the DTES began in the dying hours of October 27th. A full moon, as luck would have it.
It started ominously enough; was that a gunshot I heard at 11:30pm, or just a car backfiring?
The scream that followed was unmistakable. It seemed to come from the block I had just walked along.
I turned back to where it may have come from and narrowed it down to a single block, but there was not a reaction from anyone.
No onlookers, no fleeing, and nobody who seemed to care.
If no one else is concerned, I thought, should I be? How badly do I want to remain inconspicuous, and not ask about it?
But someone seems to know something.
“You want my gun?”
Taking a seat in the doorway of a building off East Hastings and Main Street, it wasn’t long before someone came along trying to get rid of his wrapped up jacket.
He was agitated, and really wanted to swap it with someone else’s clothing, But no one was trading. Another young man standing three feet away from me finally called him over.
“I want to buy that jacket,”
“I’ll give it to you man” the agitated man replied, holding it up to him, “You want my gun?”
“You want to carry the gun?”
“You want to carry the gun for us, to take the rap?”
“Is the gun in there?”
“It doesn’t matter. Are you?”
“I can’t do that, no.”
“Some dangerous times in this building, so you take this away from me, yes?”
The young man doesn’t take the jacket, and saunters off.
I lose track of the agitated man for twenty minutes or so until he returns, still agitated, but this time without his jacket.
(NOTE: Police later told me they didn’t receive a report of any shots fired that night.)
I decided to move on further down East Hastings Street towards Columbia, where I stopped between two “stalls” at the “market”. A place where people gather to buy, sell and trade random stuff – most of it used.
The mood here was lighter, with several people huddled together in groups. It was almost quiet, until someone set off a firework in the middle of the street, the sparks and smoke setting off cheers from various onlookers.
A police car pulled up but no one scattered, and the officers stayed inside the car until driving off barely a minute later.
It’s the closest thing all night I saw to an obvious police presence on the street.
The sparks soon fizzled out, but it’s only 2:00 am and the night continues. Pushed along with more excitement, this time in the form of needles and rocks.
Just about everyone seems to be getting their fix at once, and then the street goes quiet as the drugs do their work.
One of the users comes over to me.
“You look depressed,” he says.
“I’m just cold,” I say as I shiver in my jacket. He’s wearing a T-shirt.
He says he’s just done a $20 hit of heroin.
“Do you need to sit down?” I ask.
“Nah, too restless.”
He doesn’t want my water either, what he wants is to find a girl he says he’s been looking for all night. Can’t help him with that.
Soon it’s time to leave, those hands don’t stay steady for long.
Walking out of the DTES, I find in a weird way that leaving the notorious neighbourhood is harder than I would have thought. There’s a permanence and predictability about it that in some way gives it a kind of stability.
It’s also very difficult to imagine a world outside of it, despite having only been there one night. I can see that the way out of here is not as easy to find as those on the outside might think. And that’s without the drugs that pull so many others in.
Is Vancouver’s DTES dangerous at night? Not really.
It’s desperate and sad, and definitely unpredictable.
But it’s the kind of unpredictability that can be managed with the help of health and social workers, and the constant judgment calls made by police.
And it is also totally unique in the world, because its impact gets under the skin and stays there much longer than a $20 hit.
LISTEN to the full documentary here:
DTES by the numbers
Incidence of HIV among injection users since 1996 (All of Vancouver)
While the number of injection users have declined since 1996, crack cocaine usage has increased.
Access to addiction treatment has increased significantly since 1996