The Activate and Educate tour of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) was more than just your traditional sightseeing tour; it was an interactive experience that emerged high school and university students alike into the reality of the DTES through immersive activities carefully considered by the generous tour leader Omar. A resident of the Downtown Eastside himself, Omar understands what it takes to survive in such a community. He also understands the harm caused by stereotypes and umbrella terms that have been forced onto this community, even by people who have never immersed themselves in it. These key points, along with what can be done to further assist this community within Bumpin Bakery and beyond, are points Omar conveyed effectively through the simple act of allowing the students to walk a day in the shoes of a Downtown Eastside resident.
Before the tour even started, Omar gathered the 17 students together to emphasize the importance of education and staying in school. He stressed how many DTES residents were never given an educational opportunity, and that the resources to learn about and cope with things such as addiction and mental illness were simply never available to them. For Downtown Eastside residents, life is an inevitable downward spiral; without education, activities such as recreational drug use are not shrouded in the danger presented by statistics and facts, and thus recreational drug use often leads future residents to addiction. At that point, the Downtown Eastside becomes a last stop. Those suffering from addiction, mental illness and other ailments are abandoned by the government and pushed by society to stay in that community through sneers and jeers. Omar wanted the students to break away from the damaging perspective created by society and adopt a lack of judgement so the DTES does not remain a ‘zoo’ in their eyes.
Omar first led the group to the safe injection site, “Insite”. Although we didn’t venture inside, Omar did stop the group to talk about how sites like these have transformed the living conditions of the homeless over the years. While vile stigmas surrounding addiction still exist, an understanding and less judgemental acceptance of addiction has resulted in the slow growth of services such as the safe injections offered at Insite. Society is inching its way toward a realization that addiction will never lessen without external help. Society has already come a long way from the days where people would get beat up, even by cops, for using outside, resulting in crippling injuries and even death in some instances. Omar further stated that in those days homeless people with diabetes would get harmed for merely taking their required insulin shots.
According to Omar, the problem with these overdose prevention sites, is the lack of Downtown Eastside residents who even know they exist, and it all comes back to education. Surviving on the streets is a never-ending struggle, especially when you have very little educational background to assist you. Omar explained that for those reasons he wants to show everybody basic survival techniques for living on the streets in the unfortunate situation that one of them, or someone they know ends up homeless. He wanted the students to know how to look after themselves and to make sure they do so diligently, declaring that slipping up and using even just once could result in them becoming a DTES resident. The youth currently on the Downtown Eastside look so much older than they are because, “youth” in the form of classrooms was never offered to them. They are forced to become adults as soon as they step foot into the DTES, being forced to learn how to survive by any means possible. That is why we need to hold onto our youth, while embracing the knowledge generously given to us that allows us to grow at our own pace.
Next, Omar led the group to Blood Alley. This would be the group’s first real lesson in street survival tactics. The alleyway itself, seemingly tucked away from the rest of the world in plain sight, was intimidating to say the least. You could instantly tell every single person there contained the raw resilience to do whatever it takes to survive.
Omar led the group to a window on the side of a building, and chose two participants, a boy and a girl, to go up to the window and ask for a pipe. Each participant did so separately, and each received a clear glass pipe for smoking, no cost and no questions asked. Omar explained that those within the community will do whatever they can to help each other, as forging connections and relationships is a crucial survival skill. This little exercise served to humanize the residents around the participants, as well as to illustrate how the culture of addiction surrounds residents everyday. It also allowed respect to blossom for the Downtown Eastside community, by allowing participants to realize the area has its own system that relies on mutual ties to get on through the day; much like a school or workplace, except ties within the Downtown Eastside community could mean the difference between life and death.
Omar led the group to a bus stop next, and on the way there you could hear various residents saying ‘morning’ to Omar and even calling out to the group various positive remarks, such as ‘stay in school’ and ‘kids on the block’, the latter being a warning that ensures those within the vicinity are not exposing kids to scarring imagery. This showed participants that the Downtown Eastside is accepting of most people, even a large group of kids that take up the entire sidewalk. These interactions further showed the consideration residents have, and demonstrated just how tight-knit the community truly is.
Once at the bus stop, Omar explained that when someone is on their own and needs to get from point A to point B,the most efficient way is by asking a bus driver for a free ride. To provide the participants with a glance into the everyday life and tasks of a resident, Omar had each student board the next bus and ask for a free ride. The bus driver obliged with no hesitation, and even showed some good humour and thus an understanding of the group exercise by stating “free today, 50 bucks tomorrow.”
We rode two stops until getting off, where Omar led us to VANDU, which was explained by one of the volunteers to be an organization that assisted in protecting people’s rights. A ground zero of sorts, VANDU is run by volunteers that offer residents counselling and survival resources. These resources include teaching residents about unlawful searching by police, which is a situation that many residents are too scared and unknowledgeable about the laws to stand up for themselves. They also assist residents with the rebuilding of relationships if residents decide they want to connect with friends and family outside of the DTES again, or repair relationships with other residents.
Ultimately, VANDU is a meant to be place that provides a safe learning environment for people who were unable to learn in the past, and now find themselves lost in the ‘war zone’. This kind of volunteer organization is also what will breed the next generation of volunteers. Omar emphasized that it takes a special kind of compassionate and understanding person to help others learn, unconditionally, with no strings attached or benefit for themselves other than knowing they have helped repair many lives that were falling apart. Omar expressed his desire for the students to become leaders, like those running VANDU, who make a difference simply by being there for Downtown Eastside residents.
The last stop on the tour was Oppenheimer Park, which is best described as a sea of tents. Here, DTES residents gather to socialize and make use of the various services offered by volunteers at makeshift booths. Omar pointed out the free haircut booth and explained that something as simple as taking time out of your day to assist someone in looking presentable can make all the difference in the world. A haircut could mean the difference between a successful job interview and a failed interview for Downtown Eastside residents, meaning even a haircut could change a life forever.
Omar talked about the lack of space plaguing DTES residents, mentioning that many shelters only allow people to bring two bags of belongings. Hence, on many occasions, residents have to narrow their life down to two bags just to have a roof over their head. He also mentioned the sad reality that there is often nowhere to wash clothes, so residents are forced to throw out perfectly good clothes, that only need to be cleaned, in order not to become sick. Residents spend much of their efforts seeking clothes they will only cycle through eventually.
Throughout the tour I noticed more students interacting and conversing with residents as the group slowly ventured to different locations. This tour gave these students an opportunity to forge relationships with residents through brief exchanges, providing moments of real human connection that began to break the barrier of stereotypes. Many residents were open to these interactions, and even initiated them, demonstrating exactly how open the Downtown Eastside community is to newcomers, volunteers, and those that are simply curious to know the reality of life on the Downtown Eastside.
This tour was an eye-opening experience for all the students. Omar understood exactly how to engage the students with residents and where to take them so an accurate and startlingly realistic slice of the Downtown Eastside was represented and presented to the students. An enormous thank you to Omar for volunteering to take on this difficult but rewarding task, and I hope future tours like this will continue to show youth the harsh side of living in the Downtown Eastside, but also the resilience to stay positive every resident exemplifies.