The problem of social marginalization

UBC’s decision to establish a presence in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside made many people in both the Downtown Eastside and the university ask skeptical questions. Why is UBC making this move? What’s the real agenda? What does a mainstream, research-intensive university have to offer a poor, marginalized neighbourhood? (For more on this, see the Learning Exchange Story, especially Getting to know the Downtown Eastside.)

When I first starting working on the university’s initiative I, too, wondered what was behind it. As I got to know the UBC leaders who were involved and observed their responses to the way the initiative was unfolding, I came to believe that their intentions were genuine. The President, Martha Piper, and the members of her executive were committed to UBC’s vision of preparing students to be global citizens. They believed that getting students volunteering in the Downtown Eastside was one way to do this. In addition, they believed that UBC had resources that could be applied to solve some of the problems in the Downtown Eastside. Whatever fears I had about hidden agendas were put to rest.

But I came to realize that, while UBC’s senior administrators had a vision and clear intentions related to the initiative, they did not have concrete ideas about how to proceed. I saw this as an advantage. It meant that my team and I could flesh out the initiative based on conditions, relationships, and opportunities that existed in the community. It also meant that I was always asking myself, “What really are we doing here? What are the legitimate roles that UBC can play in this community?”

As I got to know people in the Downtown Eastside, learned more about the issues in the neighbourhood, and saw first-hand some of the complex power dynamics, I found myself wondering about one central question: “How does social marginalization happen and how can it be prevented or remediated?” The Downtown Eastside and its residents are typically characterized as being “poor and marginalized.” The two realities are usually linked. As an educational institution, UBC could not directly address people’s poverty. But we could potentially do something about the problem of marginalization.

As part of an institution devoted to the generation and transmission of knowledge, it made sense that our work would be driven by curiosity and a desire to discover something new, something that might help address the seemingly intractable social problems in the Downtown Eastside. But because of the history of academics alienating people in the area through doing research that was not seen as respectful or beneficial, I knew it would not be feasible to undertake conventional forms of research.

Instead, my team and I pursued this core question by observing social marginalization as it occurred, trying to understand its dynamics, and trying to find ways to prevent or minimize its effects. This question became our koan, akin to the riddles that Zen meditation practitioners are given to contemplate as a way of breaking through the limits of the rational mind. Instead of trying to find a quick and easy answer to the question, we tried to get to know the question, make friends with it, and allow it to work on us indirectly, in the background.

Why does marginalization matter?

bars 7In different social contexts, people are marginalized for different reasons. For example, in social groups with a long shared history, newcomers might be marginalized. As they become known, chances are the newcomers will gradually become insiders. This kind of marginalization seems to be a natural feature of social groups. My concern here is with the more intractable and harmful kind of marginalization whose consequences you see in the Downtown Eastside: people who are poor, homeless, addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, mentally ill, physically disabled, or experience a combination of these conditions are excluded from mainstream society. Enormous amounts of time, energy, money, ink, and hand-wringing have been devoted to the question of what society should do about “these people.” The problem is not limited to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

What really is the problem? It depends on how you look at it. From the point of view of many non-marginalized people, the problem is that “these people” are disturbing. They don’t look or smell or behave the way “normal” people are supposed to. This is why so much of the public discourse related to the Downtown Eastside is centred on the question of how to “clean up” the neighbourhood.

From the perspective of people who work in social institutions (e.g., the police, city planners, social workers, and heath care professionals), the problem is that “these people” are a drain on society’s resources rather than being “contributing members of society.” Their activities (e.g., street drug use, prostitution, petty crime, participation in high-risk behaviours like needle-sharing) create “needs” for societal interventions (e.g., criminal justice procedures or emergency room visits or other kinds of medical care).

Among those who are marginalized, there are a variety of definitions of what the problem really is. For example, I have heard people in the Downtown Eastside identify the real problem as:

  • That mainstream people are intolerant; they consider people who do not conform to a rigid set of social expectations as inferior, less worthy, even less human than those who do conform;
  • That the capitalist economic system requires a certain level of unemployment to function and so there will always be poor people who can’t support themselves;
  • That the resources allocated to solve social problems are in the hands of policy-makers and professionals who do not understand the issues (and some say this is because these decision-makers have no direct experience with the issues);
  • That in the case of the Downtown Eastside, low-income residents are sitting on prime real estate and the powers-that-be want them removed;
  • Classism and racism.

Among those most knowledgeable about the Downtown Eastside, both residents and professionals, a common perspective is that the problems in the area are the result of the following social policies having gone awry:

  • The placement of aboriginal children in residential schools;
  • The de-institutionalization of mentally ill people which began in the 1970s and which was not counterbalanced by the creation of adequate community-based supports ;
  • The federal government’s decision in the 1980s to stop building social housing;
  • The war on drugs;
  • Immigration policies, including restrictive policies on accreditation of professionals;
  • Welfare policies, including the level of payments and the clawing back of other income; and
  • City of Vancouver policies that resulted in the concentration of social services in the Downtown Eastside.

52_SA lineNo matter which lens you use to look at the issues in the Downtown Eastside, it is obvious that the issues are complex and have deep, long-standing roots. Even considering that the neighbourhood has significant strengths and valuable resources, it is also obvious that many people in the area are suffering. This becomes clear if you take even a minute to imagine what it would be like to spend the night trying to sleep on a cold, hard sidewalk in the pouring rain, or to stand for hours waiting in line for a bowl of soup and a stale bun while tourists walk by pretending you are invisible, or to stand on a street corner waiting for a “date” that you know might kill you, or to not know which of the voices in your head were worthy of being listened to and which were demons, or to not be able to rouse yourself from your lumpy, bug-infested mattress because the darkness that encloses your mind and heart overwhelms any impulse to get up and take part in life.

The marginalized are not the only ones who are suffering. The social service and health care professionals who see so many people in such distress can be vicariously traumatized. And they can be directly affected by the fact that so many of their clients die. One of the first professionals I met when I started working in the Downtown Eastside told me that what service providers in the area needed most was some way of dealing with their grief.

Even those on the periphery of the issues suffer. Many of the students who did volunteer work in the Downtown Eastside through the Learning Exchange became seriously unsettled by their exposure to the realities of poverty and marginalization. Their experiences shook their world view. They discovered that homeless people were not worthless bums but people who were not that different from themselves or their family members. They found out that it is not true that poor people are poor because they do not work hard enough or try hard enough. They found out that being poor and marginalized is not a lifestyle choice. They started to wonder how so many people could be malnourished, living in substandard housing or on the street, or living with untreated physical and mental illnesses in a wealthy country like Canada.

Even those who feel disgust and turn away from dishevelled people on the sidewalk begging for spare change are suffering. They want this unpleasant reality to go away.

Clearly, something has to be done. But what?

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