DES a neighbourhood where crime pays in relentless slow death
By Malcolm McColl
The DES (Downtown Eastside) is a neighbourhood in Vancouver, B.C., with a reputation for containing the most poverty stricken and crime ridden set of streets in North America, and the DES comes by the reputation honestly. The police have a one-sentence description regarding DES inhabitants, “If you're on the streets of the DES you are either buying drugs or selling drugs.” The area is carefully policed and closely surveyed but it's strictly a matter of containment.
Every alley has a drug emporium. The available narcotics span the spectrum of hard drugs with crack cocaine leading the list, followed by heroin, morphine, oxycontin, percasette, other pills, pot, and the rest. The drug sales are made on the streets, in the alleys, and right in front of police on East Hastings. The drugs of all sorts are consumed in the open air under close surveillance, often in front of police who make very few arrests. They tell drug users to drop what they are doing and step on it. The drug users scowl in defiance and step on the glass pipe, enraged that a hit has been erased. No charges are laid.
The DES is a neighbourhood composed of SRO (single occupancy hotels) with rooms at $500 a month (the cheapest in Vancouver), and a pestilence of cockroaches, mice, and rats that can never be eradicated even though fruitless fumigation is made on a regular basis. Welfare pays the bills for all of the rooms. The people are unemployable addicts to a man, woman, and often child. Nine and ten year olds, usually female, are seen on the street flapping like torn flags in the faces of passersby. The prostitution is a drug exchange. Nobody wants money, they all want drugs, and mostly they want crack cocaine.
With the coming of the Olympics to the city in February 2010, Vancouver has been haunted by the DES. The city administration has no way to cope with the situation. With half a million world visitors to arrive for the marvellous spectacle of sport that will ensue, this neighbourhood will sadly be one of the tourist destinations. People from around the world will come to see how a truly unfortunate sector of social misfits lives a wretched existence, a social milieu that gathers en masse on the lowest of the low tracks.
Everybody in the DES is a patient of a doctor (to plug an abscess) and a dentist to pull rotten teeth. They each have a social worker to hear nightmarish lamentations, and the most important connection is a trusted source that delivers a constant flow of anaesthesia to be smoked or injected or swallowed. One psychiatrist who works in the neighbourhood says the area has an invisible fence that contains the mayhem within the DES. The local grocery stores sell drug paraphernalia that is found in everybody's hand, the glass pipes and some 'brillo' that absorbs rock cocaine and permits the vaporization to fill the lungs.
Drugs are rarely 'fronted' on speculation, but when it happens a $60 debt can cost a person their lives. To pay a bill they 'find' things to sell; they sell prescriptions of a lesser favourite to buy the better favourite, stereos are sold whole or in pieces. Musical instruments for sale include guitars and keyboards; electronic gadgets include cell phones and battery chargers; bicycles are sold whole or in parts; cameras, rolls of tape, shoes new and used, articles of clothing; everything is 'boosted' or stolen from stores, cars, and hotel rooms. All the windows and doors of the businesses have steel bars, including the stores selling drug paraphernalia.
Hundreds of homeless addicts live in the street next to their shopping carts full of empty bottles and other useless garbage. In the depth of winter these homeless people bundle up tight and huddle in a doorstep, along the wall of an alley, or lay down on East Hasting Street. The scene on East Hasting Street is a sight to behold. Food is delivered to the street at all hours of the day and night by community associations and church groups, and lineups converge and queue to feed on noodles, macaroni, sandwiches, and soup, then disperse with renewed energy to engage in the pursuit of addiction.
It is important to remember these are suffering people. They are unfortunate and tormented and despondent in their destitution, but they can be friendly. They can be trusted for little and yet they will share what they have as long as it isn't the drugs. They will share a toothy smile and a laugh when they can muster it.
A person stood on the corner of Columbia and East Hastings under a sign that reads FAST FOOD, was munching on a chunk of fried potato, a house speciality and remarkably good food, where moments earlier, inside, he had asked, "What's that music?" of the guy behind the battlement of freezers and food displays. "Farsi," he replied, "from Persia," to which the customer replied, "Well it's charming," which caused the owner to break into a beautiful smile, "and thanks for the potatoes." The person then stepped out the front door of FAST FOOD when a guy ambled up wearing a Confederate Civil War hat, and said, "Holy (expletive), it's good thing I didn't light up my pipe," and he pointed to five Vancouver Police Department constables in uniform collected in a circle kiddy corner on East Hastings.
The man in the civil war bonnet (losing side) reiterated that he was about to smoke a rock of cocaine, and no one had reason to doubt it. The man with the potatoes replied, "Yes it might be a good idea to wait a minute," and the man in the war bonnet laughed. Suddenly two of the police break from the meeting and cross at the light to other side of East Hastings, to the corner opposite of FAST FOOD, and the two police, man and woman (whose hair is tied up tight by a clasp) march further south toward East Pender. The man with the potato remarked, "Those cops should be wearing helmets," to which the guy in the telling bonnet turned, and said, "I LIKE your attitude." But why? It surely wasn't concern for the safety of the officers.
The humanity in the DES contains a despondency that allows for occasional laughter and sympathy, but mostly mockery, and a lot of drug-induced confusion. People are twitching, stumbling, falling, and failing to see anything that resembles the lighter side of human existence. It's all darkness all the time. Two police officers, burly men, were patrolling on foot past one of the alley scenes of immense drug trafficking, and as they neared the entrance to the alley, they call out, mockingly, “Six,” knowing the word means “Police,” and, it would call forth a ridiculous effort to conceal the activities. The police grinned to each other as they heard SIX echo half way down the dark corridor filled with people selling, buying, and consuming the illegal narcotics that rule the DES. There is nothing the police can do except join the mockery.
This is the neighbourhood where Robert Pickton went on a nightmarish killing spree racking up a body count that has no definite number, though it believed he killed over 50 female drug/sex trade workers. Pickton was arrested and convicted (while appeals are still in the courts). The rest of the mayhem continues and will do so for as long as the world turns. Vancouver has an insoluble problem that will cannot be stopped, and the best police can muster is an operation of containment. The strategy is to contain the drug mayhem to the DES and let the suffering people have their way. The body count is far higher than the number attributed to Pickton because addiction leading to insanity and death is the only constant.