Notes From a Skid Row Survivor or Things to be Thankful for This Christmas Season

By Jimmy Snowshoes

I had just done some shopping at the Army & Navy and hopped on a bus that would take me out of the living hellhole that Vancouver’s east end had become.

Christmas was less than a month away now and I wondered what I could be thankful for in the coming Noel season.

As the bus crawled past the Carnegie Centre on the corner of Hastings and Main, or ‘Wastings and Pain’ as its known on the street, a lone cop from the Vancouver city police stood there looking bored.

The cops had been maintaining a constant presence for the past three weeks and the corner was clear of the usual lowlife that frequented that corner.

All of the dealers, crackheads and junkies and the like had moved one block west down the street to Columbia, making their deals or whatever they had to do to keep their pathetic little underground economy of hard drugs on the move.

At least they were away from the Carnegie where the permanent residents of the skids could find solace from the harsh reality of the street in the drug-free environment it offered.

Although the police had made over 600 drug-related arrests in the last year, the place was still a Mecca for hard drugs that were available 24 hours a day/seven days a week for Vancouver’s growing addict population who arrived from across Canada.

I had to smile. It took a permanent vigil by the police on that corner to keep it clear. Now the local old-timers in the east end’s many hotels and the poor no longer had to run the gauntlet of crack dealers and their ilk to seek comfort inside. There were clippings on the wall in the library inside quoting locals who said it was the first time in years they felt safe enough to come back to the centre.

A turn to the left
The city had just had its civic election and Coalition of Progressive Electors (C.O.P.E.), the city’s party of the far-left, had just swept into power taking the mayoralty and eight of the ten seats on city council.

In fact the whole province held civic elections and the province, on the whole, had also decidedly leaned to the left.

People on the street said it was in reaction to the policies implemented by the provincial Liberals, whose landslide provincial election popularity had since waned in light of his dramatic government programs cuts and policy directions.

It was the first time ever that the C.O.P.E. had elected a mayor and the first time in ten years that they held a majority.

Ex-cop and former city coroner Larry Campbell, the charismatic inspiration for the hit series Da Vinci’s Inquest, had pledged to implement outgoing N.P.A. Mayor Phillip Owen’s “Four Pillars” drug strategy.

The strategy comprising treatment, prevention, enforcement and harm reduction, had got him booted out of his own party and led to the total annihilation at the city polls of his successor N.P.A. mayoral hopeful Jennifer Clark.

Clark had forced out Owen over the issue of harm reduction or “safe injection” sites, which the rich West Enders saw only as legalized shooting galleries for the east end’s growing addict population.

The internal friction in the N.P.A. had Vancouverites voting against Clark and the city’s elite who ran the city for the last ten years from the West End.

At least Campbell has the legitimacy of his experience as an ex-cop and city coroner to actually deal heavy-handedly with the phenomenon of Vancouver’s drug problem. After all, he himself has no doubt buried hundreds of them.

A long way to go
But if some of the residents of the downtown eastside have a little brighter future this Christmas season, others’ near future looks a little bleaker.

The Vancouver City police recently released a follow-up study on youth in the downtown eastside. The study found that 55 per cent of youth picked up on sex trade and drug-related incidents were of aboriginal descent.

The initial study, conducted two years ago had found that 41 per cent of youth picked up on sex and drug charges were aboriginal.

The First Nations population makes up just one and a half per cent of the city’s nearly 300,000 residents making the number of aboriginal youth-at-risk (average age 15 years) extremely disproportionate.

But now that a decidedly socialist bent has returned to the province’s largest city (and many of its towns and hamlets), hopefully we’ll see some real attempts to address these problems that plague our families and children and see some new programs to help repatriate the youth-at-risk away from the downtown east side back to their home communities.

And the fifty or so homeless who braved over two months squatting around the old Woodward’s building had something to cheer about this Noel season.

Although the weather got extremely cold in the final weeks of their vigil, the new C.O.P.E. mayor Larry Campbell said that dealing with the squatters would be one his first orders of business when he and his new council was sworn in on December 2.

He made good on that promise. Campbell has pledged will be social housing in the Woodward’s building for the city’s homeless as well as other uses.

Mayor Campbell has vowed to clean up the east end’s “open drug market” by the next civic election through the implementation of the four pillars drug treatment strategy.

The new mayor appointed the former mayor Phillip Owen, co-chair of a new task force to implement the four pillars approach and even now are planning its implementation.

Critics said the building would just become a haven for the drug dealers and their clientele.

But maybe, with a little vision, planning and good luck, that old building can become the focus of real change in one of Canada’s poorest neighborhoods.

Problems growing
The skid row corner of Hastings and Main has been described as “the most active corner as a drug market in North America.” It doesn’t matter that the police have simply moved the problem one block west away from the more visible corner of Hastings and Main. The problem still exists and is growing.

We have Hispanic crack dealers that recruit teenage native girls to sell the “rock” openly on the street and more and more, you can see the weirdos – the mentally unstable. They’re spreading out from Hastings and Main, up and down Hastings and around Chinatown.

They are the harsh crack addicts with the open sores on their faces that crane their necks and make spastic gestures with their hands and arms.

Is it cocaine-induced psychosis or AIDS-related dementia or both?

Who knows, maybe there’ll be a lot more skid row survivors who’ll live to tell the tale if our new mayor is true to his word.

Those who can walk out of that living nightmare that Vancouver’s east end has really become.