Yes, I work for the Portland Hotel Society. Yes, I work at Insite, the only legally sanctioned supervised injection site in North America. And yes, injection drug use, most frequently with illegal substances, occurs there. In fact, many hundred times per day. Yes, I’ve also heard the news about us, and have read our accusations.
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. What a place. Make no mistake, this is a community of unique historical importance, no moment so great as now. This apparent gem of a city, ocean, mountains, and this ghetto, not too long ago, known as Canada’s poorest postal code zone. All representing for me and many the collision of all the big questions and big solutions of our culture. The beauty of the mountains and the despair of poverty sharing the same horizon line, obscured only by the division of concrete, glass, and the cranes used to create more, bigger, concrete and glass obstructions. I used to be proud of this place; I literally would get a little rush, like a lover’s rush, when I saw the city’s skyline. I found a place to be engaged in this great conundrum, how can such affluence surround such great poverty? This conundrum, the bedrock of what creates an unjust society, and our struggle to not only answer this question but act on the answers we find, moves us toward justice and compassion as individuals and as a culture. I used to be proud, but the displacement of this neighbourhood is underway. We all lose because of it and no longer can we be proud.
My engagement with the Downtown Eastside was not of choice but of circumstance. I arrived as a newly single father struggling to legitimize home and family life, against many odds. Building from a personal ground zero financially, socially, and admittedly emotionally, the struggle was further challenged by the difficulty in finding affordable housing in this city. I found it. My new neighbours were the poor, forgotten, and outcast. Eccentrics, activists, artists, addicts, homeless, sex trade workers, drug dealers, seniors, those with illnesses both of body and mind, mixed all together often in the same person but certainly in the same community, characters all. All the unwelcome ones were welcome here, including me and my little pink and purple brood.
We, this broken little brood, found ourselves engaging, not ignoring, those deemed the Unwelcomed. Loving. Recognizing, this is our neighbour and friend. Being loved in return, cared for as a human, and esteemed as a father, though struggling, uncertain, threatened, but applauded just for showing up as a dad and implored to keep showing up. All this preceded my employment with the Portland Hotel Society 5 years ago.
Then finally a job where I could thrive. I could be on time for work at night (it took some practice, sorry to those I kept waiting) instead of being late every morning (thank you, ADD). Harm reduction and low barriers to service, these were the principles. The rule book was thin- treat people with the inherent dignity they have as humans. Also, and I quote one of my recently replaced directors, welcome all people into the human family, including the drug addict. (He said something to that effect on Hannity. The Fox News Hannity, whose viewership watches not to be educated nor transformed but rather to entrench ideology. I’m grateful those words were spoken to such a hostile environment, regardless of its receptivity). With my work, and I’m not alone in quickly experiencing this employment to be a vocation and a calling, I was able to further engage the symptoms of a poverty culture. This implies a culture that is organized toward providing the excesses of some to the exclusion and expense of many others. Our vocation is the responsibility to welcome the Unwelcomed and tear down the barriers that deny many people, especially the addict and those suffering with mental illness, the basic dignities that we assert are inherently human. No barriers, not how you get your money, what you ingest, how you look,what past or current trauma you’ve experienced, what your mental health, intellect, hygiene, whatever else I can list alongside the basic human rights, nothing (save for maybe violence, but maybe there’s still that chance…) will create a barrier between us and your dignity, your humanity. What an engaged, radical notion. People of conscience, this is an opportunity to give thanks.
We are/ were led by a few radicals, the radically compassionate, eccentric characters themselves, but driven to overachieve in creating an integrated workplace and neighbourhood where they themselves live. That happened by providing housing, food, inventive health care models (including but not limited to Insite), creative access to employment, banking services, gathering places, identification cards (seriously! the most basic of barriers) but mostly an engaged, uncondescending workforce who laugh, love, bandage, hug, and ultimately mourn, grieve, celebrate and simply be with these, the beloved Unwelcomed. These who we assume will always be a major part of our lives. Yes, I have a crush on all who I work alongside, people who daily commit themselves to providing dignity to our own lives, mine. The dignity that we are a people who do not ignore the Unwelcomed. We are not bystanders. No, we instead love and care and in that way create dignity for all regardless of a broader validation. And we’ve always been willing to fight for that because we consider basic dignity to be an essential service. All this achieved in an environment where there was no pre-existing political will to facilitate these services. Everything in place is in place because the people, led by our recently deposed management, fought for it to be so.
And now we’ve lost a major battle. Many were afraid we might lose our jobs. But we’ve been placated, patted down, reassured in the manner you would the surly housecat whose countenance seems to await the question. But the question can’t be asked because you’re the cat and I’m the human and we can’t even talk, right?. So we regard it as a battle lost, a direct assault on a few people and a greater assault on the plight of the Unwelcomed. With that acknowledgement given, I feel the need to answer some of the accusations levied against our employment.
Yes I’ve been to a hockey game with a resident. It was that thing that happened, the Olympics. Yes, the same event that accelerated the pace of gentrification in this neighbourhood to a jaw dropping pace, the same gentrification leading the current displacement. Tickets were donated for Downtown Eastside residents. I accompanied a young Somali man, never having been to a hockey game himself, with severe post traumatic stress disorder. Getting him through the heavy wall of security with his dignity and respect intact was the objective. And to watch a hockey game. We did both quite successfully. I was there with many other residents and co-workers. I bought the resident a soda. My own money was used, I have since misplaced the receipt. He seemed to enjoy the soda more than the game. I’ve also been to a Cirque de Soleil show, the horse one. Yes, with residents. And my children. Together all pretty happy, sorta like neighbours. I’ve also had a beer with residents on more than one occasion. I was in a pub in the neighbourhood we share, the kind of pub that would allow entry to the kind of people I work amongst as opposed to all those other (read, new) pubs. We saw each other. We were happy. We sat down for a moment to get caught up then returned to our evening. Kinda like how neighbours and humans treat each other.
Rest assured, I’m not a poverty pimp. I’m the working poor. The wage I make is the only income in my family. In this city, while parenting 2 daughters, that puts me near the bottom of any income categories. I wear this as a badge of honour, a gratitude of sorts that allows me to serve the Unwelcomed with a clear conscience. I have no middle class condescencion. No sense that “I’ve come to the ghetto to save you, to help you on your way to a pleasing esthetic, a tax paying vocation, and a consumer lifestyle, God bless”. Rather, I’m among you and need the same salvation as you. I’m frequently pointed to while someone tells another that I saved their life. And I consider myself the least among my co-workers who have far greater stories than mine, and I hear those stories regularly. I hear it generally, about “us” as an integrated organization. I hear it from people in managed heroin programs. My children hear it when we walk down Hastings together in the hugs and high 5s and plentiful laughs and hellos. My daughters are afraid to walk down Hastings with me not because of violence but because it takes too long. That’s called love. People get their lives back when we are on task, which is always.
What of the questions about accounting irregularities and the behaviour of the Directors? Regarding the Directors, mainly Mark and Liz who I consider to be friends in the broader sense of the term.
I’m no defender of excess, I don’t care how you make your money. Anyone who rides in limos or stays in luxury hotels more than once in, let’s say, 5 years fails to impress me. (I have yet to do either in my rather lengthy life and have no aspirations to do so). Those are occasional luxuries at best for people of conscience. Doing it while also being responsible for the public purse makes no sense and is indefensible. When your friends do it it becomes a “What were you thinking?” sort of gesture. Additionally, executive wages are a tough call, but I don’t begrudge their salaries at all. That is the culture we’re in. They are well within the non-profit wage structure and things would have gone way smoother if we had more bureaucracy in place, which is an undeniable and awful assertion. If I didn’t know the years of sacrifice preceding these wages I might question it more. If I wasn’t aware of how frequently they have cared for employees and residents alike in generous monetary ways, and if I wasn’t aware that they worked at a relentless pace day and night from their home office, which was 4 houses down from mine for a year and a half, then I might be a little bit angry. This was no job for them; it was a work to which they dedicated of their lives. And consider this. If they had paid themselves $40K per year more over the 3 years in question (a figure of approximately $500K- 4 people X $40k X 3 years) and paid the controversial excesses out of their own pockets 3 things would have happened. 1. Their wages would have still been lower than the top 4 BC Housing Execs. 2. They still would have been far more effective than any other organization, including BC Housing. 3. Nobody would have cared. But they screwed up and there are enough people in power who hate them for their activism and lack of bureaucratic process that have been waiting, salivating for this moment.
Again, I don’t deny the problem of excesses nor do I defend it. But I do forgive whatever it is, maybe it’s the moment of allowing themselves to believe in their own untouchableness. It’s undeniable that these people are world changers. The world, literally, has come to us to learn about the dignity of care I’ve described above. No exaggeration, the world. Nobody else could have created that. Evidence of that is that nobody else has. The world, again no exaggeration, is better because of these people. Forgiveness, therefore, is readily given. And forgiveness implies a change in the forgiven, which is my great hope.
With all love and sincerity