Living on the margins

There are as many stories of social marginalization as there are people living in places like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Every story is unique. But there are some common patterns. People experience abuse in childhood, they become mentally ill, they lose their jobs or marriages, they experience racism or other forms of discrimination, or they inherit poverty the way other people inherit wealth. For a variety of reasons people living on the margins no longer fit in the mainstream. In some cases, they never did.

People’s responses to being marginalized are also unique. Some embrace the freedom. They have already been cast out, so they do not worry about what people will think. Others re-assess what success means and carve out a niche that feels right despite society’s norms. Others strive to return to the mainstream.

Here are partial stories of what it is like to live on the margins from two men who frequented the Learning Exchange drop-in for many years.


Laszlo Szemok has been living in the Downtown Eastside or taking part in social programs in the area ever since his marriage broke down and his wife kicked him out of the house. When this happened, Laszlo became homeless and depressed. He started walking miles every day as a way to hold onto his sanity. He started coming to the Learning Exchange storefront in 2003 after he walked by the storefront one day and decided to come in and check it out. I recently talked with Laszlo about his experiences in the Downtown Eastside.

Laszlo sees the area as an unhealthy environment, one where people with multiple problems have been dumped. He believes that people end up in the Downtown Eastside because they have been judged so many times. They lose their self-esteem. Then people from outside (such as police or health care professionals) come to the Downtown Eastside and treat people there in ways that people aren’t treated elsewhere. It is a downward spiral.

Laszlo Szemok
Laszlo Szemok (photo copyright UBC)

If you are poor and living in the Downtown Eastside, it is almost inevitable that you will interact with one or more of the many health and social service agencies in the area. Laszlo sees the poor people and the professionals in the welfare infrastructure as two sides of the same coin. “We are not all that different,” he says. He thinks the social service agencies are using people. This is a common perception in the Downtown Eastside. Many poor residents describe the health and social agencies and those who work in them as “poverty pimps.” This term aims to expose the presumed hypocrisy of individuals whose professional careers depend on other people’s misery as well as the conflict of interest inherent in service organizations’ ongoing survival depending on more and more people being needy.

Laszlo does not think that social agencies start out intending to make the needs of the organization itself their primary priority. But the organizations become self-serving as a result of the need to compete for limited funds. Laszlo believes one way to improve things is for the social agencies to be more open-minded, inclusive, and proactive in the way they relate to their clients. They need to get clients actively involved in activities, rather than relegating them to roles as passive recipients of services and programs.

Laszlo says, “The Downtown Eastside is the only home I’ve ever had. This is where I found myself.” He notes that while the social service system is inhumane, the people in the neighbourhood are not. For example, Laszlo told me about a time when he was first in the Downtown Eastside when his long-time friends would not give him the time of day but an addict stopped his compulsive search for drug remnants on the sidewalk (an activity called “tweaking”) in order to say hello to him, a stranger.

Part of what Laszlo found in the Downtown Eastside that helped him establish a new stability was what he describes as a spiritual insight about interconnectedness. He saw that everyone has both good and bad aspects. Click below to listen to this part of our conversation.

“I’m much more connected to humanity as a whole because of my experience in the Downtown Eastside.”


Laszlo also developed an understanding of how he was judging others as well as seeing how others were judging him. He says, “If you are going to have a community, you can’t have us and them.” Laszlo believes that getting past all kinds of stereotypes is crucial to dissolving the distance between people. He sees himself as having stererotypes about his own life before it fell apart. He knows that sometimes it takes a crisis to shake up your perceptions. Click below to hear Laszlo and me talking about this.

“It’s not just looking at people in the Downtown Eastside and breaking stereotypes, it’s breaking your own stereotypes about your own mode of life.”



Jonathan (a pseudonym) is another Downtown Eastside resident who has been coming to the Learning Exchange drop-in for many years. He was in his mid-50s when we recorded the conversations this profile is based on. Jonathan grew up in what he describes as an “alcoholic, drug-addled, violent environment.” He says he was left on his own a lot as a child so he essentially raised himself. He started skipping classes in kindergarten and dropped out of school officially as soon as he realized he could. Jonathan has done various jobs over the years, including logging, fishing, and working construction. But his vocation is photography. He has taken photography courses at community colleges and private schools. Much of his work features scenes from nature. Jonathan does not aspire to be a commercial photographer. He is more interested in shooting photographs that convey universal themes. Jonathan has had a few showings of his work in the local area but would like his photographs to reach more people. Here’s how he described his approach to photography in a conversation with me.

“The trick is to look within yourself”


Jonathan has been living in the Downtown Eastside for a long time. He values the neighbourhood because it offers a freedom not found in other places, including the freedom to be who you are and not worry about what others will think. But he is not naive about the way the neighbourhood is viewed by others. Jonathan believes that people in the Downtown Eastside have been condemned by mainstream society, ostracized because of where they live or a mistake they’ve made. Click below to listen to his views on this.

“You are going to hell because we made it and you didn’t.”


Jonathan believes that people in the mainstream and the margins have nothing in common. He views the separation of the mainstream and the margins as a good thing because it allows marginalized people more freedom. He sees the Downtown Eastside as a place where people do things that would be considered socially unacceptable anywhere else. He says, “People down here are living for the day, because that’s all they’ve got. Their future is already destroyed. The powers-that-be made sure of that.” This lack of concern for what people will think is combined with a concern for others that Jonathan does not see in mainstream society. Jonathan sees the Downtown Eastside as a close-knit community where the opportunity for change is huge. He makes a distinction between being in control and having power. People in the Downtown Eastside may not have control, but they do have power, including the power that comes from having nothing to lose.

Click below to listen to Jonathan’s comments.

“There is opportunity coming out of the ying-yang. . . “


“People here . . . will share with you what they have to help you.”


But living in the Downtown Eastside is no picnic. Jonathan describes the environment as extreme. “People down here have intense experiences between each other— too many of them are negative experiences. Normal things are not intense enough to even register. Going to bars and taking drugs are the only things available down here.”

Although Jonathan would like to be successful as a photographer, he does not aspire to be part of the mainstream. He views mainstream success as a trap. The more you have, the more you are afraid of losing it. What is important to Jonathan is not material possessions or social position but what he has learned. “Your position is here today and gone tomorrow. What I’ve learned stays with me.”

Jonathan has not had an easy life but he believes that adversity has made him strong. He says, “You have to experience continual adversity until the frustration and resistance are worn away. Only then will you find peace within yourself.” Facing adversity challenges you to find out what is important. For Jonathan, sharing his knowledge with others is what matters. He feels satisfied with what he has done in his life. But this sense of peace is hard-won. Sometimes Jonathan gets tired of living on the edge. As he put it, “The Lions Gate Bridge looks pretty good right about now.” Here is more of my conversation with him. 

 I’m walking on the edge all the time. And it wears on you.”


Is social marginalization inevitable?

graffiti and manLiving in areas like the Downtown Eastside or living in the shadow of stereotypes and judgmental labels is different from life in the mainstream. There may be advantages to being marginalized. You are not anxious about losing what you do not have. You are already stigmatized so maybe you do not worry much about what people will think of you. There can be a sense of solidarity among people on the edge, a shared understanding of what it means to be experiencing trouble and a shared opposition to “the system.” But, by definition, being marginalized means being excluded. You are an outsider, of marginal importance. And typically, being marginalized means being devalued, dehumanized, seen as “less than” the normal majority.

The marginalized population of the Downtown Eastside includes people who are homeless, mentally ill, physically ill or disabled, addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, and poor. There is a disproportionate concentration of people with financial, health, and social problems in the Downtown Eastside but most communities contain people with problems. In almost every community there are people who have fallen on hard times and need help, who cannot fend for themselves, or who are seriously troubled in one way or another. In small communities where everyone has family and neighbourly ties and in past times, the welfare of people in such circumstances would be seen as the responsibility of families, friends, and neighbours. With the growth of a government-funded social safety net in the years after the second World War, the care of such people has increasingly been seen as government’s responsibility.

wall mural dragonThe preceding comments from Downtown Eastside residents who frequented the Learning Exchange suggest that the way Canadian society has been responding to the presence of people who need help is less than perfect. While the mainstream public discourse no longer describes poor and troubled people using openly derogatory terms like “the dregs of society,” “ne’er-do-wells,” and “welfare bums,” the more politically correct language still denotes an inferior status. Terms like “disadvantaged” or “under-privileged” clearly place people who are poor or in trouble in an inferior position relative to people in the mainstream. The language now commonly used in the health professions and elsewhere, where the discourse refers to “vulnerable” or “under-served populations” may seem more neutral, but in my view, these terms are equally problematic. The first term implies that vulnerability is a condition that afflicts only some people; the second implies that the only solution to the problems of such populations is more services. Both of these assumptions are untrue.

Human communities will always have members who are sick, frail, and dependent because the vulnerability to illness, misfortune, and death is part of the human condition. The question is: How should social groups, communities and societies incorporate this reality into their structures and ways of acting?

Part of the problem is the human tendency to categorize things, ideas, and people in order to manage complexity. This has led to the dichotomization of what are in fact non-dichotomous variables. There are not some people who are independent and others who are dependent; we are all interdependent. There are times when everyone needs help of one kind or another. There are not those who “have” and others who “have not;” material wealth is a continuous variable. And material wealth is not the only thing worth having.

In addition, the creation of in-groups and out-groups is a pervasive dynamic in social systems. So is the creation of status hierarchies. At least some aspects of our sense of self seem to depend on comparisons with other people. Many marginalized people recognize their status as outsiders in relation to the mainstream. But they identify with a community other than the mainstream, a community like the Downtown Eastside where they are insiders. Jonathan is an example of this. He knows he and others in his community have been “condemned” but he considers his marginalized community to be superior in the ways that matter. Being an insider or an outsider is relative.

Our sense of belonging to a particular group sometimes is achieved by contrasting those who are similar to us with those who are different. Too often, the drawing of a boundary is accompanied by a devaluing of those who are on the other side of the line: “the other.” When the ways in which the other is different threaten our sense of propriety or order, we are particularly likely to devalue or even dehumanize the other.

In these postmodern, politically correct times, the word “deviance” has become unfashionable. But, in thinking about how people in the Downtown Eastside become marginalized, it is important to recognize that this can happen when we are confused or disturbed by behaviour that is unfamiliar. Drug addicts, mentally ill people, people who are angry at what they see as an oppressive, corrupt system (the mainstream), or people who are not skilled in the social graces often behave in ways mainstream people consider strange.

UBC students who did volunteer work in the Downtown Eastside through the Learning Exchange were often afraid that they would be approached on the street by a drug addict or mentally ill person and they would not know how to respond. Often, when someone’s behaviour deviates from the social and cultural norms we are familiar with, we feel threatened or offended. Sometimes, the result is that we turn away and decide the person is not worthy of our consideration.

How can individuals and institutions acknowledge the realities of these dynamics while at the same time resisting their more destructive consequences, namely the dehumanizing of marginalized people?

For more on the problem of social marginalization see the other articles in Being on the outside, part of the Reflections section.