The Downtown Eastside has a new memorial for victims of the overdose epidemic.
Last night (April 9), a group of Vancouver artists attached a white wall to a fence that faces onto the street of 62 East Hastings. That’s a city-owned lot that hosts the Downtown Eastside Street Market Society, a collective of vendors headed by former parks commissioner Sarah Blyth. Organizers are now encouraging people to post memories there of people who have lost their lives to drugs in recent years.
The project came together at the Vancouver Mural Festival office at 877 East Hastings. Interviewed there just before it went live, Vancouver Mural Festival executive director Dave Vertesi said their hope is for the wall to serve as a memorial and a message.
“Sarah’s idea was to have a space that people could use to write or post pictures or whatever, to remember their family and friends,” he explained. “It will say, ‘We are in the middle of an overdose crisis.’”
In a telephone interview the morning after the wall went up, Blyth said the memorial is also a political statement ahead of the provincial election scheduled for May 9.
“The idea is to create awareness during the B.C. election, to say that we’re in an overdose crisis and that we need help,” she explained. “That should be a priority for everybody.”
So far in 2017, more than 100 people in the City of Vancouver have died of an illicit-drug overdose. That compares to 215 during all of 2016 and an annual average of 57 deaths from 2001 to 2010.
On March 30, Mayor Gregor Robertson issued a statement calling for a more urgent response from higher levels of government.
“It's abominable that with 100 overdose deaths already this year in Vancouver—almost half of 2016's total—we have yet to see effective action from the provincial and federal governments on health care solutions that will stop the death toll in this fentanyl crisis,” he said, quoted there.
“Overdose death totals have long surpassed horrific levels and the B.C. government urgently needs to spend the $10 million received from the federal government before yet another hundred families are impacted by tragic preventable deaths,” Robertson continued. “People are desperate for access to clean prescription drugs, substitution therapy and treatment-on-demand; measures that will immediately save lives and help people recover from addictions."
The memorial wall at 62 East Hastings Street came together with the help of an artist who goes by the name Brother Jopa, Vertesi (who also happens to play the bass guitar for Vancouver indie-pop group Hey Ocean!), Vancouver Mural Festival operations director Andrea Curtis, and other staff and volunteers associated with that organization.
Blyth said the wall will also serve as a message board. She explained that a lot of people in the Downtown Eastside have complained to her about challenges they’ve had learning who in their community has died of a drug overdose.
“In many cases, nobody knows who’s died,” Blyth said. “Or they’re finding out in the newspaper, or they’re finding out months later. Nobody knows what happened. And that can include family. So this gives people a place to put it down and then people can read it.”