After being immersed in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, in awe of gushing waterfalls, forests, elk, and mountains, the rawness of Main & Hastings and returning to work last week at the Carnegie Library was euphoric, inspiring and jarring.
On my first day back, Jean Swanson (a Downtown Eastside advocate, activist and legacy, now part of the Order of Canada!) entered the Carnegie Centre behind me, waving the latest edition of The Province (August 30, 2016) with absolute delight. Local hero, Jack Gates was taking on the slumlords, the multi-millionaire Sahota Family with a class action lawsuit, after his earlier small claims court success in July.
Swanson marveled at his bravery and stated, “He has the religion with him.” She explained that while other tenants might cower in the face of the Sahotas, and their nasty cohorts who threaten, harass, kick down the doors, and evict anyone who dare complain about the rats, cockroaches, mold, bed bugs, lack of hot water, lack of heat, and lack of a functioning elevator at one of their various Single Room Occupancy establishments, it seemed like Jack had a force field of light guiding him. Even the headlines of his earlier success reveal his strength – “‘They thought I was going to back down and leave’: DTES tenant’s court case shines light on practices of Sahota landlords” (July 10, 2016).
Jack would not and will not be moved or threatened. He is a quiet, humble man, and certainly not the type interested in hype or attention, but has explained to me that someone has to show the others that it can be done – the poor have a right to live in a home, and live in dignity. Yes, he has the religion, not the mainstream, Evangelical brand, but rather the gritty, hardcore teachings of Christ, and a faith that will lead him into the den of wolves for the simple sake of justice.
This was good news to start my day, and then it was an absolute joy entering the cafeteria and being welcomed and hugged by Anna, Laura, Dee, Victoria, and various library patrons, who all have their profound stories. Folks steadily popped into the library to inquire about my getaway throughout the week. There were some cool projects working out well like our drop-in Tech Cafe at Oppenheimer Park, an author reading featuring Lee Maracle, and a round-table event showcasing the new book about PovNet – Storming the Digital Divide: the Povnet story (2016).
And yet, like clockwork the moment the weather flipped into a heavy downpour, and legitimate fall temperatures, everything went sour. Last Friday, I mediated a situation involving grown men punching each other in the head because someone muttered something, and someone was hogging the computer. Meanwhile, a series of overdoses and fights in and out of Centre kept the Security team frantic. The icing on the cake was when a sketchy dude triggered the alarm and ran out of the library with a duffel bag full of Graphic novels and Chinese kung fu DVDs.
My co-worker, three security guards and I chased him outside, but he hopped on his (most likely) stolen bicycle and dodged us down Hastings street. It was very frustrating, and while my 5’3″ co-worker was itching to grab him, the guards explained that our safety isn’t worth battling someone with who knows what coursing through his veins. We had to let it go.
I ended up working overtime on Friday, to connect with a particular woman I’ve mentioned before. Her young nephew had finally succumbed to a combination of alcohol and drugs, possibly laced with Fentanyl. She explained that there had been 39 overdoses in the neighbourhood the previous day, some survived, others did not. In her hands was a dated First Aid textbook, and she had decided to teach herself emergency response. More and more locals are taking it upon themselves to carry Naloxone kits at all times. They have been described as “Fentanyl Lifeguards” in the news, as they are often the first responders to this deadly, twisted concoction.
I asked my friend how she processes and recuperates from the heartbreak each day. She is always smiling. She said that she holds it in and waits until she gets into her apartment before crying. She just keeps on fighting. Her list from over the years of organizations she volunteers and works with was staggering… SisterWatch, DTES Women’s Centre, VANDU, Washington Needle Exchange, Tent City, on and on. Twenty-six years in the DTES and somehow surviving. I told her how I admired her deeply.
Sometimes my brain struggles a bit with this privilege I have – the option to disconnect from the neighbourhood, enjoy a paid vacation, work a well-paying job in the heart of poverty. And yet, the library patrons often delight in hearing about my motorcycle adventures. My friend used to be a biker babe herself, and would ride around Vancouver on her Harley Davidson back when she rolled with some real thugs. It was a cool point of connection.
Obviously, I would never flaunt my employment and good fortune. I just have to allow myself to be humbled and inspired by others, the heroes and the fighters, patient with the lowly thief, and consistently kind to all. The only strange outcome of working at the Carnegie is that I notice that I’ve felt the need to take more quiet time for myself, and be selective when asked to be a mentor outside of work with friends. I don’t think it’s selfish or antisocial behaviour, even though some acquaintances are disappointed in me, it’s just the classic introvert move of needing to re-fuel and create balance.
I track the news now for local stories about Fentanyl and W-18. It is such a nightmare, but I’m grateful that Narcan exists. I can’t read the public responses – the nasty generalizations about addicts. All life is precious, even if one is in the depths of darkness, battling demons. Any one of these people could become a community hero in their own time. That’s the only way I can understand the suffering. Suffering can often create perseverance, and eventually an opportunity to comfort and support someone else who is in the thick of it.