Downtown Eastside residents mark health-emergency milestone with call for names of the dead

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      One year has passed since the B.C. government declared a public-health emergency in response to a sharp rise in drug-overdose deaths.

      To mark the sad occasion—sad, because since then, it appears that the crisis has only intensified—the Downtown Eastside Street Vendors Society erected a wall that the group is encouraging people contribute to to create a memorial.

      “I’m losing all my friends,” reads one message written on the white canvas created there.

      “Dedicated to Pintu,” reads another. “I know you’re smiling down on us.”

      The wall went up late Sunday night (April 9) and already is nearly completely full with messages like those ones.

      At an April 11 ceremony marking the public-health emergency’s one-year anniversary, Sarah Blyth, whose idea it was to create the memorial, said she also wants it to serve as a political statement aimed at both the provincial and federal levels of government.

      “It’s been one year and we’re still asking for the declaration of a national health crisis,” she told the Straight. “It is a national health crisis and we want it to be recognized as such.”

      At the provincial level, Blyth said she wants the overdose crisis front and centre in the minds of candidates competing in the election scheduled for May 9.

      “This needs to be a provincial election issue,” she said. “We’re going to make it a provincial election issue whether they like it or not.

      “People are dying,” Blyth continued. “If that’s not an election issue than I don’t know what is.”

      Blyth has worked on the front line of the overdose crisis since last September, when she established an overdose-prevention site with the help of Ann Livingston and Chris Ewart.

      At the wall’s official unveiling this morning, Livingston said they also hope to use it as a space to share information among friends and families about those who the community has lost to a drug overdose.

      She explained that the B.C. Coroners Service is refusing to release the names of the deceased, citing privacy concerns. In a community like the Downtown Eastside, where it’s not uncommon for people to come and go, and also where so many have died of a drug overdose in recent years, Livingston said that’s created uncertainty about who’s alive and who’s dead.

      “It’s really difficult in this neighbourhood,” she said. “It’s a part of caring in a community to celebrate someone’s life and we aren’t able to do that here. So this is the beginning of that.”

      Since the provincial government declared a public-health emergency last April, roughly another 1,000 people have died, about five times the annual average of 204 deaths for the years 2001 to 2010.

      In Vancouver, the number of overdose deaths has climbed from 68 in 2012 to 100 in 2014 to 215 last year.

      On Sunday (April 9), a group of artists and activists erected a wall on the 00 block of East Hastings Street where they're inviting people to share memories of friends they've lost to the fentanyl crisis.
      Travis Lupick

      As Blyth and Livingston spoke to the Straight, members of the market society and other residents of the Downtown Eastside continued to leave messages on the wall behind them.

      “I wish to honour all those that I have loved and lost,” one of those posts reads, “but it’s too many and I am sad to forget some of their names.”

      And another: “RIP Courtney Point + Mike Howard and everybody whose lives been cut short cause of this fucking shit.”

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