Friday, December 19, 2008


Oldtown News
Vancouver, BC


Tonight I was touring the Downtown Eastside with a photo journalist, Laura, who is from Sweden. She is researching for a story about Vancouver's street-involved women.

Setting out tonight we drove up Cordova and observed several homeless sleeping outside in front of the Stanley-New Fountain Hotel which has been given funding for thirty emergency shelter beds. Apparently these extra beds open Friday night and it will be interesting to see if the same people who are outside once the shelter opens remain outside.

The sex trade strolls were basically deserted tonight and even the circle jerks didn't seem to be out. Driving over to Kingsway, we didn't encounter any women working that stroll either.

Next we travelled over to the new WISH Centre and it was rather quiet although this could be due to it being the day after welfare. WISH staff were very pleasant and they work at bringing comfort to marginalized women's lives.

During our walk-a-bout, we witnessed far too many folks huddled and shivering outside. Many were obviously sleeping outdoors and I counted at least 25 individuals who appear to have no housing. And this number was just along the Cordova corridor from Abbott to Dunlevy Street which is a stretch of five blocks.

Obviously there continues to be a serious problem of homelessness and various levels of government need to explore why these vulnerable citizens are sleeping outside in sub-zero temperatures. I was dressed warmly in a sweater, heavy coat, scarf, boots and gloves yet I was still very cold.

We saw a few individuals sleeping outside the front entrance doors to the stately Saint James Church on the corner of Cordova and Gore Streets. Driving by Laura and I observed a church door open and we circled the block, parked the car and walked across the street thinking perhaps that Saint James had opened the church for the night, offering our homeless a place of refuge. However, upon crossing the street, we saw the door was now closed. We spoke with a woman leaving the Church who informed us that the Church wasn't open and there had been a choir practise which was winding down. Hopefully the homeless person at least heard some beautiful music.

We walked over to First United Church which on Monday night opened 24 hours after the City, the Province and St Andrews Church contributed $30,000 to bring citizens in from the cold.

Frank Delorme, a wonderful compassionate man who for many years lived in the Downtown Eastside is on staff at First United. He is overseeing the makeshift shelter and his deep concern for the less fortunate is so patently clear.

It was very troubling bearing witness to what I was visualizing at First United. At least 75 people sprawled out on the cold floor or curled up in fetal position on the hard wooden pews, made me feel great shame. I was really overcome with emotion as I can't believe I'm living in a City with enormous wealth and yet we have people living like animals. In fact, I bet animals are treated way better in our society.

What also unsettled me at the Church was the putrid smell. It is not the fault of the people as they obviously do not have adequate resources or proper housing to have any sort of appropriate hygiene. I thought to myself how can one have any dignity or self-esteem knowing that they smell badly. I'm certain these citizens don't feel any sense of dignity in their lives. This to me is terribly tragic.

During our visit at the First United flophouse, I ran into Sean Condom who is the news Editor at Megaphone which was formerly known as Street News and before that Spare Change. Sean was there doing a story and I 'm happy that he was present to observe the situation there.

I spoke with someone named Coco who was sitting on a motorized scooter. Coco informed me that she was just released from the hospital for pneumonia. She was waiting until the all-women's overnight shelter opens at 11pm. She says it is very difficult finding housing and I was deeply saddened that someone just out of the hospital with serious illness would not have a proper place to recover. At 7:30am, the all-women's temporary shelter closes so she will head back to First United to grab a cup of soup and a bun and then a few hours later a myriad of the social services which line the Downtown Eastside and numerous pockets will open. Coco will probably go from soup kotchen to the stale sandwich line-up to some other place providing a free meal. This will probably be how Coco spends her day. Her future I suspect is quite bleak.

While speaking with Coco, I saw an old friend Joey who I have known since the mid 1970's. Joey is now 50 years of age and like Coco she was waiting for the female overnight shelter to open. Joey is coping as best she can and I was really ticked off learning that she still doesn't have any housing. I know Joey and although she has drug issues she would easily be able to live in independent housing with some supports if there was something available. Joey informed me that she doesn't want to live in the hotels because they are crawling with bed bugs, mice and cockroaches and I can't blame her.

A number of individuals I spoke with at the Church let me know that they live in single room hotels but they preferred staying in the Church because this setting allowed them the opportunity to socialize with their friends. Moreover they stated they feel safer.

I really hope people who are reading my blog visit First United over the next few days to bear witness to what is going on in our City. Then I ask citizens to travel up to the recently closed Little Mountain Housing to see how this perfectly usable social housing remains empty.

I believe we should immediately re-open Little Mountain. The smaller living units have two-bedrooms, a living room and kitchen. It seems that the government could place two cots in each bedroom and the homeless can socialize with their friends in the living rooms and kitchen. Moreover, there are communal laundry facilities and bathtubs and showers to look after personal hygiene needs.

The province through BC Housing can hire Frank Delorme on a short-term contract to oversee security. He has a small team working with him at First United and many of his workers have been homeless and they obviously are getting it or have gotten their shit together. They were all equipped with walkie-talkies and I observed them in action, working cooperatively together providing comforting words to their guests and keeping the flophouse safe.

Once Frank and his team are in place, the homeless camping out at First United can be re-located to Little Mountain until such time as there is something more suitable to support our less fortunate in our City.

Jamie Lee Hamilton