On living and dying young in Vancouver

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      The following is excerpted with permission from the book “The Best Place: Addiction, Intervention, and Living and Dying Young in Vancouver” by Danya Fast. The book collects and captures the stories of young people in Vancouver, sharing their experiences, hopes, and dreams in their voices as they navigate housing and overdose crises.

      Excerpt from Part 1: Dreams of Place

      Lee, The Best Place on Earth, 2009

      “My very first night here—all the lights on Granville Street [in the Downtown South]—it felt like I was in Vegas,” Lee said in 2009. “Well—I’ve never been to Vegas before, right? But, I don’t know—it’s how I imagine it—from TV and stuff. This is the best, uh, place on earth, I think. Just like the license plates say. It’s just awesome out here.”

      All across the city, in shelters and SROs, beneath overhangs and in doorways, and in public parks and beaches, big-city dreams burned bright amid troubling nightmares.

      Jeff, Paradise, 2009

      “I had dreams of Vancouver my whole life before I came here,” Jeff said to me the first time we met. It was the spring of 2009. We were standing in an alleyway, leaning against the wall of the Lighthouse shelter. The light was slowly draining from the early evening sky, but the atmosphere was charged, anticipatory. Groups of young people formed and disbanded as they darted in and out of the shelter and up and down the alley. The party was just getting started.

      Jeff continued, “It was a recurring, vivid dream of Vancouver as, like, a paradise. I felt like I was at home in the dream. I was walking down Granville Street [in the Downtown South], and there was grass instead of pavement. And I thought to myself, how cool, how awesome it was here. And everything was perfect right until the end of the dream. A tsunami hit me. That’s when I got killed and I woke up screaming every time.”

      Big-City Dreams

      In the public imagination, young people who use drugs in the context of homelessness and unstable housing are often defined through their relationships to place. In Vancouver, they are viewed as out of place when in too close proximity to the city’s towering, glassy high-rises and condominiums, expensive bars, restaurants, and shops, and carefully restored heritage homes. In the colonial imagination, Indigenous young people continue to be positioned as out of place in cities full stop, despite long histories of territoriality in these places and continued vibrant presence (Dorries et al. 2019; Peters and Anderson 2013). Yet, young people who use drugs, including Indigenous young people, may be understood as in place on the streets and in SROs and supportive housing buildings in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Downtown South neighborhoods, even as gentrification in these neighborhoods increasingly brings them into proximity with homes and businesses from which they are excluded. Alternatively, they may be understood as simply placeless, with nowhere to go.

      I began this project expecting to learn how young people made a place for themselves in the social, spatial, and economic margins of the city, and particularly the Downtown South and Downtown Eastside. Yet I was repeatedly confronted with dreams of place that exploded these conceptual and geographic boundaries. As I got to know them, my interlocutors didn’t often want to talk about life in the margins, including where they were coming from and where they were currently located. They wanted to talk about Vancouver as one of the best places on earth and to imagine where they were going next.

      Vancouver is a hyper-researched setting of poverty and addiction. This project was just one of many that young people could engage with in return for cash honoraria and other material and immaterial benefits. This setting perhaps brought into sharp relief how my research subjects often actively played with damage-centered (Tuck 2009) and suffering slot (Robbins 2013) narratives, at times articulating familiar narratives of risk, harm, and marginality, at others forcefully rejecting them. They could be highly tactical in their use of designations like at-risk youth to gain resources and advantages from sympathetic social workers, judges, researchers, and other professionals. Simultaneously, those I knew were generally not willing to imagine a sense of place or self rooted in the idea of a local street youth or drug user community (Fast et al. 2013) or shared forms of biosociality (Nguyen 2010; Petryna 2002). Nor, in most moments, could these young people be characterized as “righteous dopefiends” (Bourgois and Schonberg 2009) or “urban outcasts” (Wacquant 2008). Instead, they embraced, and felt embraced by, big-city dreams and told many of the same stories of belonging and becoming (Biehl and Locke 2017a; Deleuze 1995) that are, to a certain extent, inhabited by us all (Comaroff and Comaroff 2000; Robertson 2006; Sterk 1999).