Const. Wes Fung: The Downtown Eastside show
One reason for the continuing tragedy that is the Downtown Eastside is because we don’t care enough to find truly meaningful solutions. Our community has allowed the scourge of drug addiction and mental illness to be socially and politically palatable because no one wants to acknowledge the truth: that as long as the society’s “garbage” is down there and NIMBY, it’s tolerable.
We appease our guilt by hosting extravagant charity fundraisers and give money to panhandlers, and some will even make the trek into the neighbourhood during Christmas time to give out free food and clothing. These acts of goodwill are well intentioned but misguided, doing nothing to address the problems in the Downtown Eastside but instead enabling the status quo. It’s false compassion: we fool ourselves into believing our deeds are doing some good, but the primary motive is to cleanse our conscience.
The citizens residing in the neighbourhood are at times viewed as circus sideshow freaks. Families from all over the Lower Mainland will dare to drive into the area to show their kids what will happen if they use drugs. The people of the DTES are probably the most photographed, interviewed, and filmed to ostensibly bring more focus to their plight. The writers, photographers, filmmakers, and politicians go on to reap their rewards of recognition while the subjects of their work are once again relegated to mere footnotes, left to wallow in wretched obscurity until the arrival of the next hack or politico.
There is also a financial motive for the ongoing crisis. There are numerous institutions with their respective bureaucracies competing for limited government funding to deliver a variety of social services to the residents. It has been suggested that about one million dollars a day is expended, that much of it is wasted because of bureaucratic redundancies and a lack of accountability. Though this may be somewhat exaggerated, it is evident a lot of money is poured into the community as though it were a third world country. Throwing money at problems without the necessary checks and balances make any initiatives vulnerable to inefficiencies and corruption.
This creates a catch-22 situation whereby all these services are created to seemingly help the people, but by doing so we foster a prey/predator culture of dealers-addicts, pimps-prostitutes, sociopaths, and a cycle of violence where today’s victim is tomorrow’s offender. An atmosphere of entitlement develops because the boundaries defining social etiquette are blurred. Behaviours and actions deemed inappropriate in “normal” neighbourhoods are excused because the actors suffer from varying degrees of addiction and mental illness. The lack of consequences emboldens those who are not drug addicted nor mentally ill but feed on those that are.
This dysfunctional dynamic is used to justify the survival of all the bureaucracies, and society buys into it because it’s an easy cop out. The more programs and treatment centres that open the more we delude ourselves into believing it’s the best fix under hopeless circumstances.
Because these programs are centralized in the DTES, it’s very easy to be drawn into the maelstrom but almost impossible to leave due to the dearth of support elsewhere. Establishing treatment centres in the neighbourhood is akin to holding AA meetings in liquor stores. It’s doomed to failure when one has to fight temptation to navigate around the phalanx of luring dealers skulking nearby on a daily basis. Truth is, many of the dealers are gang affiliated, live in the suburbs, and are from middle-class backgrounds as are many of their customers. They make regular forays into the DTES to supply and lord over their subsistence-level minions who do the street-level transactions and run the risk of arrest.
Harm reduction strategies of providing free needles and crack-pipes to curb the spread of disease and overdose deaths are an understandable knee jerk response to the misery but do very little to address the problem in the long term. It will take a tough approach to deal with an ugly situation.
The concept of forced treatment is intensely controversial because it means the suspension of an individual’s right of choice, the foundation of democracy. There is also the argument that a person has to make their own decision to get clean and any coercive methods to compel treatment will fail. This premise is based on the notion a “junkie” is still able to make rational choices. We try to apply logic to an illogical act when in reality, the user is so thoroughly consumed with seeking their next fix that common sense does not apply.
This is not to suggest forced treatment is a panacea for all the ills haunting the DTES, because there are no perfect solutions—some people are beyond help and will die. However, if carried out methodically and with compassion, a person has a better chance to reclaim their dignity and self-respect, to give back rather than take. Forced treatment offers the one thing harm “reproduction” cannot—hope.
Amend the Mental Health Act to include addiction and divert some of the money flowing into the DTES into building medical centres located away from the area and staffed by qualified personnel. Instead of administering narcotic substitutes, the patient goes “cold turkey” and is closely monitored.
Next is a psychological assessment for mental fitness to determine the appropriate follow-up measures that include counseling, nutrition and exercise, hygiene, education upgrade, work force re-entry, and family participation.
Individuals deemed profoundly unstable and a safety threat would be transferred to an institution like Riverview for a more structured environment. Sadly, for many it is a life sentence. Those making good progress would earn the privilege of graduating to transition homes to continue their re-integration into the community. The houses would be located in neighbourhoods throughout Greater Vancouver and the neighbours would be made aware of the initiative, the entire process transparent.
Ideally, forced treatment and transition homes would be accepted as meaningful solutions to deal with addiction and mental health issues in the Downtown Eastside. In reality, the idea alone would cause such public uproar that no politician would dare champion the cause.
Compounding the problem are the self-proclaimed advocates for the marginalized whose sole purpose is to perpetuate the veil of suspicion and mistrust of the police. They descend into the DTES and cloak their agenda in self-righteous propaganda to brainwash the residents into believing they are the true defenders, but the only thing being defended is the status quo and, therefore, their relevance. Many of these groups and individuals know the “hot potato” issues in the DTES and use them as political launching pads to polarize the citizenry, reinforcing an “us versus them” mentality. Public pandering and social guilt has given these people too loud a voice and like Dr. Frankenstein, we have come to fear our own creation. Before riding too high on our moral horse we should all take a hard look in the mirror, though we may not like the image because the problem and the solution is staring right back at us.
Contrary to public perception not everyone in the DTES is drug addicted, mentally ill, or a dangerous felon. Having worked the area for the past three years I have come to know many of the long-time residents. There are a lot of good people who are passionate about the neighbourhood because it’s home. Their frustration is palpable because they know the community can be much more than what it is. I can also sense the vibrancy returning: the new funky shops and eateries opening up and the cautious optimism of the people moving back into the area.
There are those who believe this “gentrification” of the DTES is a threat to the disadvantaged, low-income residents: that the resulting rise in property values would make rents unaffordable thereby throwing these people onto the streets.
I believe if the government were to adopt a more assertive tact to deal with the fiscal inefficiencies and redundancies, the money could be redirected to attract reputable landlords and building owners with fair subsidies relative to property tax increases. This would be an incentive to provide a higher standard of housing for low-income residents who must earn the privilege of living in the upgraded homes.
I also believe that if people are surrounded by positive stimuli they will be inspired to try harder to be better, call it the “Broken Window Theory” of human behaviour. For far too long, the DTES has been enveloped in a smothering cloud of negativity, but the shroud is slowly lifting. This renaissance is being lead by new entrepreneurs, developers, and young families who are aware of the challenges faced by the residents and want their participation to help make the neighbourhood a better place.
These two groups can coexist quite comfortably, but much of this is predicated on the political courage that will be required to make difficult decisions to deal with the problems. Until that happens, the present situation will ensure job security for a lot of folks—cops included.
Const. Wes Fung is a Chinatown-Gastown neighbourhood police officer with the Vancouver Police Department. Fung has been a member of the department for 27 years, serving as the liaison for several SRO hotels in the Downtown Eastside over the past three years. The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s and do not represent the views of the department.