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East of Eden: Life on the Streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside


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Earlier this year I went on a field trip that started with going to an abandoned insane asylum then going to the poorest postal code in Canada. The psychology east hasting trip was an unbelievably eye opening experience that really helped me understand mental illness and addiction.

The first stop we made on the trip was a outdoor tour of Riverview, the old insane asylum that was shut down in the 80’s. The stories I was told about that place made it seem like a place to do human experiments instead of treat mental health. After it was shut down in the 80’s many of the patients had no where else to go and ended up on east Hastings which now has one of the highest concentration of addiction in Canada.

Unfortunately we couldn’t go inside but even from the outside it looked straight out of a movie which is what it’s actually sometimes used for now.

After a 5 hour bus ride we finally pulled up to a hotel that looked as if it was straight out of a movie from the 50’s and unloaded all of our stuff. We then went and met up with some of the people who help the addicts in the area. While we were enjoying our pizza we saw a prostitute who looked as if she hadn’t slept or showered in weeks, get picked up by an elderly man in a green with minivan who had a huge, white bread and looked like a skinny, Asian Santa who hasn’t changed his clothes in years. 

After listening to some of the people who help the addicts in the area we took a walk all around east hasting. The first stop we made was at a place designed to help the people living there. As we were standing outside the buildings one of the addicts came and told us some things about his life. He told us about how his son was smoking out of a broken crack pipe and ending up going right through his neck. When he managed to get to the hospital the staff apparently told him “we don’t serve your kind here”. After getting kicked out of the hospital, not sure if he was going to live or die, he decided to smoke again and this time he passed away. He also told us about his wife and how she is always so high on jib she doesn’t even recognize him anymore, she just lives at her dealer’s house and he gives her all the drugs she wants. I then noticed a man sitting down on a bench nearby with hands that looks as if he had just been using black paint. I later found out that it’s from using broken crack pipes that overheat. They actually give free crack pipes and syringes to prevent the spread of HIV and to make sure the filters they use are not toxic.

The day before we left for east Hasting a man stabbed 3 people before being shot by the police. While we were walking I noticed a massive red stain on the ground where the man was finally shot down. I looked closer and was mortified to see chunks of brain and skulls still stuck between the cracks in the concrete. We later walked to Carnegie Hall and talked to one of the security guards who told us about some of the things he’s seen while working there. He  told us about people overdosing in the bathroom and just about the harsh lifestyle. He then said he actually witnessed the murder the day before. You would think these type of things were common down there but from what he had to say it seemed like more of a rare occurrence than I thought.

From what I saw there is a clear sense of community down there. From safe injection kits to warning not to get picked up by certain cars you can tell that people try to provide the safest environment possible for the addicts. after our tour of the downtown east side we started making sandwiches to hand out. We also handed out some socks and toothbrushes. It really makes you appreciate what you have when you see someone almost start to cry over a pair of socks or run down the street to get a sandwich because he is so hungry. We had one man, who was an incredible cartoonist, start joking around with us asking if the socks get his feet high, then sold my friend a cartoon for $5. Once we got back to the hotel we were so tired from waking up at 5 that we fell asleep right away.

The next day we had a group reflection on what we had experienced the day before that left nearly half the group in tears because a lot of us had never seen anything like that first hand. Overall I think the trip was a great experience that really showed me how addiction and mental illness is a extremely important issue that isn’t easy to fix. There addiction clouds there minds, it’s nearly impossible for them to find jobs and they are caught in a cycle that is hard to break from. The best they can do is hope there isn’t a new generation of addicts ready to continue this vicious cycle of poverty and mental illness.

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East of Eden: Life on the Streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside