Homeless in Vancouver: Is Metro Vancouver mean or the mean average?

Almost had to laugh when I read the cover story in this morning’s Province newspaper about a woman having her purse snatched in a busy shopping mall in Burnaby.

Particularly her dismay that only one of the hundreds of other customers in the busy mall heeded her call for help.

No, I don’t enjoy reading about thieves, but honestly Province writers, tell us something we don’t all know about Metro Vancouver.

The piece cites the “bystander effect” to explain why almost no one was willing to rush to the woman’s aid.

To be sure, people in public spaces are inclined to ignore “somebody else’s problem” and we do all have a tendency to give strangers the benefit of the doubt, hence the crowd parting to let the purse snatcher through.

All the same, I have always found the deficit of helpfulness in Metro Vancouver especially large—too large to be explained away by the normal reticence to get involved.

But I have to concede I may lack sufficient perspective to judge.

I came to Vancouver as a teenager fresh from the Prairies and I’ve only prowled the West Coast. I’ve never even traveled as far the East Coast. The biggest U.S. city I’ve been to, after San Francisco, was called “Yellowstone Park”.

Learning to mind your own business in the big city

The first time I had my eyes opened to the true nature of my adopted home was back in 1981—eight months after I moved to Vancouver—a long time ago to be sure, but I’ll never forget it.

I was bussing it westward down the slope of Davie Street one chill February day. Looking out the window, I saw block after block of pedestrians and one man lying flat on his back on the sidewalk—I was dinging the bell and off the bus like a shot; dashing back to help the guy.

In my defence, I was new in town. An 18-year-old from the Prairies. I didn’t think. I just did what a person was supposed to do, y’know?

Turned out the elderly man had slipped on a bit of ice and fallen hard on his back, knocking his wind out. He was dazed but otherwise fine.

How could it be, I wondered, that no other person stopped to see to him and help him up.

I was working at the Westender newspaper then, so I asked an assistant editor if she could explain it.

We were in the new condo unit she and her husband owned. I had my righteous indignation. She had a glass of wine.

She was an educated, very intelligent, socially progressive, female journalist—top of the species, I thought.

But she told me, in all seriousness, that she wouldn’t have helped the old guy either. She’d have been too worried that he might have rolled over and thrown up on her—I’m not making a word of that up; the conversation is engraved in my memory.

I could never look at her or my adopted city of Vancouver quite the same way again.

Self-interest isn’t the same as selfish interest

I want to say something about Saskatchewan, the province where I grew up—a flat land of farmers and wheat and Mennonites and Ukrainians and (let’s be honest) a lot of intolerance towards non-whites). A big province with a small town mentality from end-to-end.

I don’t think I received anything like the optimum upbringing, but I got the basic Prairie fundamentals down cold, including mutual assistance—how we help each other.

We don’t do it because we like each other; we do it for the inevitable time when we will need help. The Golden Rule isn’t about religion; it’s about self interest.

No shortage of love in Vancouver if we’re talking about money

Admittedly, Vancouver has always been more about helping yourself than helping others, but the two impulses need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, I think the two naturally go together in a healthy, civil society. But apparently not so much in Vancouver.

Vancouver has consistently been a “me first” place for all the 30-plus years I have lived here, even while most other things about the city and region have changed.

I can’t honestly say why, but I believe it has to be about more than just money or demographics. It can’t simply be that Vancouver boasts a particularly large population of shallow strivers collected from the rest of Canada and around the world, can it?

Remembering some of Vancouver’s coldest days

If nothing else, the news item about the purse snatching caused me to inventory my many memories illustrating the “detached” way Vancouverites relate to each other. Here are some of the highlights:

A golden sunset mingled with sounds of violence: the screams of a woman being assaulted somewhere in the West End cruelly amplified by some cruel trick of sound. I called the police, but couldn’t give them more than my immediate location. They didn’t send a car.

The ambulance dispatcher(s) unwilling to dispatch ambulances to the Downtown Eastside because they were sure “heart trouble” was only “drunk”.

All the neighbours on the east side of my apartment building on Commercial watching while I forcibly put myself between a guy on the street and the woman he was beating on.

Having my backpack stolen at the main library downtown when I inadvertently fell asleep at a study carrel, while, I might add, other library patrons looked on and told me about it after I woke up.

The man in the huge motorized wheelchair I found capsized and half out of his chair on the steepest part of Alder Street, north of West Broadway Avenue. Told me he’d been there 20 minutes with all those cars whizzing by.

The two incidents I know of in the last two years when homeless people in the Fairview neighbourhood were assaulted without warning or provocation on public streets in broad daylight.

And just recently after I caught and boxed the ears of a druggie trying to rifle through my bike trailer locked up near a bus stop, having one of the people waiting for the bus—who had watched the would-be thief—tell me they didn’t think he got anything.

Less Golden Rule, more Golden Mean

It has startled me every time someone from another city has told me they consider Vancouver to be particularly unfriendly—doesn’t Vancouver always top those magazine polls of most livable cities?

Livable and friendly aren’t synonyms?

Of course I’ve long noticed that Vancouver has a mean and selfish streak. I’ve always just assumed other cities were as bad or worse.

If not; if Vancouver and its surrounding region is especially bad about the way its citizens won’t lift a finger to help each other, then I guess we should try to figure out the cause, if it doesn’t, you know, put us out too much.

The more I think about it, the more I think it might be something in the wine.

Comments (2) Add New Comment
sympathetic
"But I have to concede I may lack sufficient perspective to judge"

Thanks for making that point clear. I hesitate to make a sweeping statement, but in every large city that I have lived in, conditions aren't that dissimilar. And some small towns, too.
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Frank
Vancouver is a city full of timid fashionistas fearful of getting their clothes dirty by helping someone in distress or preventing criminal activities
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