Discarded People

When I write about the Downtown Eastside (DTES), I generally try to capture stories of hope and humanity. However – hope is harder to come by in a neighbourhood that keeps getting darker – a neighbourhood plagued by systemic inequities and injustices.

For the last 14 years, my students and I have volunteered on Vancouver’s streets inviting marginalized citizens to write to friends or family they have lost touch with. Year after year, Vancouver’s unhoused citizens have opened their hearts, trusted my students and I with their stories and written messages of love. We have mailed over 1000 cards—some with inscriptions seeking reconnection, some apologizing for past hurt, and some simply checking in to let their loved ones know they are alive. Every card symbolizes hope and love sneaking in amidst broken relationships. 

This December, as we offered to send cards, most were not able to do so. The mere invitation moved one lady to tears, unable to speak of her unresolved pain. Another woman sincerely thanked us but declined, explaining she can no longer trust. One man looked on with speculation and shook his head as he passed by mumbling “I’m not falling for that trick”. After surviving a global pandemic, record cold temperatures and an opioid crisis, our streets are not the same. Our broken citizens are shattered. Our most vulnerable population has passed the tipping point, where their focus on survival prevents them from leaning into vulnerability and opening old relationship wounds. They have learned that outsiders will not take care of them. As a society, we have failed those at the fringes.

I know as some read this, they will disagree, finding comfort in the belief that those living with homelessness and addiction have made their own choices. It’s easy to blame those struggling with addiction for the violence and crime that disrupts our collective safety. Some will judge and blame the people on the streets for tarnishing the images of Vancouver—a city continually voted as one of the most beautiful places to live. Others will simply turn a blind eye, lock their doors and pretend problems don’t exist. Whether you lean in with compassion, or find justification in individual circumstances, there are some startling statistics that shed light on the oppression within our great city and ask us to question if our systems are working. Vancouver’s 2020 Homeless count revealed that 36% of our homeless community were in foster care as children. Over 25% of Vancouver’s homeless have sustained brain injury impacting their physical and cognitive abilities. Most face two or more health related obstacles. In comparison to 2% of Vancouver’s general population, 39% of our homeless citizens are Indigenous. Canada’s poorest neighbourhood is not plagued by addicts and criminals – it’s flooded with traumatized souls—teens, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, veterans, and residential school survivors. 

Many turn to addiction to mask their pain. As most addicts will tell you, illicit drugs feel like a warm hug—exactly the feeling they are so desperately missing. And yet the same drugs that offer an escape from reality, are taking the lives of British Columbians at an unprecedented rate. In 2009, when I began volunteering on Vancouver’s streets, 201 people in our province died from an illicit drug overdose. As 2022 comes to a close, BC is on track to set a new record, with over 2000 lives lost to illicit drugs. Overdose has become the leading cause of unnatural death. Every person I have spoken to on Vancouver’s streets has lost more friends and neighbours than they can count. Their grief is insurmountable, and yet many still use. Why, you may wonder? As Johann Hart wisely concludes, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety – the opposite of addiction is human connection.” Leading trauma and addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté encourages us to reframe: “Don’t ask why the addiction. Ask why the pain.”

While it is easy to see that our systems are failing vulnerable citizens—it takes courage to personalize that awareness and recognize that we are all products of our environment. If we shared the lived experiences of those on the streets, would we be where we are today or would we be hiding in doorways and alleyways chasing our next hit to release the pain of isolation and trauma?

As we turn to 2023, and set resolutions to practice gratitude, improve health and connect with those we love, perhaps it’s time to add one more resolution to the list—a promise to look to the fringes, connect with compassion, and see those cast aside within our families, our schools, our workplaces and our city. Melinda Gates eloquently states “Every society says the outsiders are the problem, but the outsiders are not the problem. The urge to create the outsiders is the problem”. We share the collective responsibility to heal our communities. In 2023, let’s see our outsiders. It’s time to stop discarding people. 

5 thoughts on “Discarded People

  1. Your words touch my heart. Every person that exists is a gift. Unfortunately, life circumstances push some to the very edge of despair. May each one of us be the light that shines in the very darkest of places.

  2. Happy New Year Kristi,

    Thank you for sharing this message. Our challenge moving forward, I believe, is to persuade the policy makers to hear this message. Funds are being allocated to tackle addiction in our province. Unfortunately, not enough being done to tackle the issues that are causing the “pain” that leads to addiction, such as examining the broken down system that eventually leads residents of group homes and foster care to addiction.

    Health and Happiness,


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