Moving in from the margins

Gradually, UBC’s initiative in the Downtown Eastside gained a sense of solidity. The Trek Program grew exponentially, engaging more students in a wider variety of volunteer placements every year. The afternoon computer drop-in developed a distinct flavour as a place where something unusual was happening. It was a calm space where certain conditions were constant, including the protocols for computer use, the norms for behaviour, and the expectation that everyone would engage in something that was at least vaguely educational.

But it was also a space where the confluence of people could result in surprises. Sometimes these were pleasant: a growing sense of closeness and trust among patrons or between patrons and staff members. Sometimes these were unpleasant: an outburst from someone who was having a bad day and couldn’t keep it together any more. It was never boring.

I felt confident that the Trek Program and the computer drop-in were both valuable things for the university to be doing. And it felt right for us to have this home base in the neighbourhood, and to be trying to make connections, being visible and available without drawing undue attention to ourselves. But the question, “What should UBC be doing here?” was always in my mind. I knew it was still early days but I also knew that sooner or later, we had to find a substantive, coherent, defensible answer to that question. In the meantime, I concentrated on learning as much as I could about the Downtown Eastside. Two major government initiatives provided valuable insights into the issues in the neighbourhood as well as its power dynamics.

The city’s Four Pillars Drug Policy

At the time the Learning Exchange was finding its legs, the open drug scene in the Downtown Eastside was a hot issue. In 1997, public health authorities had declared a state of emergency because of the huge number of overdose deaths and the rising rate of HIV transmission among IV drug users. The open drug use at Main and Hastings, outside the city-operated Carnegie Community Centre, was a frequent topic of debate in the media, in government offices, and on the street.

One of the first meetings I attended in my new role as Director of the Learning Exchange brought together the emerging Mayor’s coalition on drug policy. A small group met in Mayor Philip Owen’s office to hear about his plan to implement a comprehensive drug policy based on four pillars: Treatment, Harm Reduction, Prevention, and Enforcement. Subsequently, the city sponsored a series of public forums to discuss the proposed policy framework. I went to the first of the forums thinking it would help me understand the issues better. I attended almost all of the remaining forums because they were so informative.

Several of the forums were held in downtown hotels. Typically, about 50 people attended. The formal program started with an overview of the Four Pillars framework given by Donald MacPherson, then the city’s drug policy coordinator. Donald had at one time been the Director of the Carnegie Centre. He was one of the members of the small advisory committee that provided guidance to UBC’s 1999 consultation in the Downtown Eastside. He was very familiar with the neighbourhood and its issues. After Donald spoke, a panel of experts would offer comments. The forum organizers were careful to include a diversity of perspectives, including the professional and the personal, e.g., speakers would be a public health official, a government representative, a police officer, and a representative from VANDU (the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) or a parent of a drug user.

Then there would be a question and answer period. In every forum, the divisive conflict surrounding the Four Pillars framework surfaced almost immediately. On one side of the debate were those who believed the answers to the problems lay in stronger law enforcement, more aggressive abstinence-based treatment, and less coddling of drug users who just needed to shape up and get straight. Underlying these perspectives was the attitude that drug use is a moral problem, a failure of character. This camp tended to include businesspeople, police officers, and some government people, including conservative politicians. On the other side were people who believed the answer was more effective harm reduction programs and services like needle exchanges and supervised injection sites. These people believed that drug use was essentially a health issue. This camp tended to include health and social service professionals, left-leaning politicians and bureaucrats, and drug users and their family members.

Inevitably, the question and answer period brought out heated arguments on both sides of the debate. Sometimes these were rational and respectful, but often the opinions and the way they were expressed were inflammatory. In addition, at almost every forum someone from the audience would stand up and tell a very personal story of their own experiences with drugs or the experience of someone dear to them.

These forums demonstrated how complex the issues were. Those who told stories of how they or a loved one had started using drugs showed that there were many paths to addiction. But there were common themes. The majority of hard drug users were physically and/or sexually abused in childhood. Many were introduced to drugs at a young age by a trusted adult. Often the drug-induced high was the first time in their lives they had felt happy. I began to understand how misguided much of the public discourse around drugs is (e.g., the idea that being addicted to heroin or cocaine is a lifestyle choice).

East Hastings street sign
(photo Copyright UBC)

At one meeting I heard Dean Wilson, then the President of VANDU, provide a rationale for opening a supervised injection site. Dean explained that the single room occupancy (SRO) hotels in the Downtown Eastside had a policy that tenants had to pay a $10 fee every time a visitor came to their room. Drug users knew it was risky to inject drugs alone since no help would be available if they overdosed, but they could not afford to pay $10 to bring a friend to their room every time they needed to “fix.” Instead, they injected drugs outside, on the street, where they were visible. Before hearing this I had been ambivalent about the proposal to open a supervised injection site. I believed the scientific data from sites in other parts of the world about the merits of harm reduction programs but I also was sympathetic to those who worried that such programs encouraged drug use. After hearing Dean’s description of users’ reality, the moral ambivalence I felt about the proposed supervised injection site became secondary to pragmatism. The argument underlying the concept of harm reduction suddenly made sense.  As one slogan I heard during the public debate about the Four Pillars policy put it, “Dead junkies can’t do detox.”

The forums not only highlighted the perspectives of drug users. They also gave a platform to others with a stake in the drug issue. Businesspeople from the Downtown Eastside were particularly vocal about the need for more law enforcement. I could understand the frustrations of local businesspeople who were seeing their profits disappear because customers were afraid to venture into the Downtown Eastside. Now that I was responsible for a storefront operation, I knew how time-consuming and unpleasant it was to have to clean the sidewalk in front of your business every morning, washing away needles, food scraps, condoms, bits of clothing, mattresses or worse. But I could also understand the anger of drug users who felt they were being seen as sub-human, disposable. And I could understand the impatience of the professionals and bureaucrats, some of whom just wanted to get moving on some changes, even if they might not have all the answers yet.

At the same time the city’s public consultation was going on, another grass-roots organization called From Grief to Action was also working to raise awareness of the human side of drug addiction. But this organization was coming from a different point of view. The organization was founded by two couples who lived in Kerrisdale, a well-to-do area of Vancouver, whose children were drug users. From Grief to Action hosted their own forums, which had a different flavour from the city’s.

One I attended was held in the meeting hall of a large Anglican church in Kerrisdale. The panel of speakers included the parents of drug users. They told the heart-wrenching stories of their sons’ or daughters’ decline into addiction. The question and answer period was not as contentious as the ones at the city’s forums; there was less debate about policy solutions. Instead audience members shared their own stories of loss, despair, and, in a few cases, hope. Although the hall was filled beyond its seating capacity, the stories created an atmosphere of quiet intimacy. This event showed that drug addiction was not just a Downtown Eastside issue.

These forums were complemented by a range of other events focusing on the drug issue, including lectures, film showings, academic symposia, and extensive media coverage. These went beyond the usual stereotypes, raising awareness about the personal stories of drug users and their families as well as providing information about research and innovative programs in other jurisdictions, especially harm reduction initiatives such as safe injection sites and heroin maintenance programs. These events humanized drug users. Suddenly drug users were not a different species; they were someone’s daughter or son, mother or father. The grass-roots organizations, VANDU and From Grief to Action, were formidable forces throughout this time. The public discourse about drug use and addiction changed.

The impact of all this public debate resulted in the city’s adoption in 2001 of the Four Pillars framework and the pursuit of many of its recommendations, including the opening in 2003 of Insite, a supervised injection site in the Downtown Eastside.

Economic revitalization

At the same time the city was advocating for its new drug policy framework, all three levels of government (federal, provincial and municipal) were trying to figure out how to revitalize the economy of the Downtown Eastside and how to solve the problem of homelessness. The Vancouver Agreement was implemented to coordinate the governments’ efforts. Several layers of committees and task forces were created. The premise underlying this initiative was that it would be more cost-effective and impactful for the three levels of government to collaborate rather than working in isolation or worse, working at cross-purposes.

But according to government insiders, as well as my own observations, the initiative was hampered by the difficulty of bridging the different “cultures” of the three levels of government—there were differences in decision-making styles, tolerance for risk, and the need to defer to political masters. A further complicating factor was the question of how Downtown Eastside residents’ voices should be incorporated into the deliberations related to the Vancouver Agreement.

An organization called Community Directions was created, with funding from the federal government, after activists and social agencies in the Downtown Eastside successfully argued that citizens should have a say in the future of their neighbourhood and should be “at the table” with the three levels of government. Community Directions became a powerful force in the debates about what needed to be done to “revitalize” the Downtown Eastside. It saw itself as the only legitimate representative of Downtown Eastside residents’ interests.

At first, Community Directions was one of the loudest voices opposing UBC’s proposed entry into the Downtown Eastside. But after establishing the storefront we asked Community Directions if we could send the Learning Exchange manager to their meetings as an observer so we could learn more about the neighbourhood and its issues and aspirations. The manager tried to be helpful, offering to do things like make coffee, set up the meeting room, and take minutes. Before long, the Learning Exchange was invited to become a member of Community Directions. This represented a major milestone for us, although because the manager had quietly become known and respected, it barely registered on anyone else’s radar.

Sincere efforts were made to get local residents involved in Community Directions. But even Community Directions found it challenging to engage individual residents in their decision-making. Going to meetings is not part of the regular routine of most Downtown Eastside residents. Even when residents showed up, they were often unfamiliar with conventional meeting protocols and uncertain about how to effectively contribute to discussions. In addition, it was difficult for residents to participate as equals with professionals who in other contexts held significant power over them, for example, the power to provide or withhold housing or social services or health care. Given the nature of the process, it was not surprising that Community Directions was dominated by the leaders of the most powerful social and health agencies in the neighbourhood. The organizers’ best efforts were not able to disrupt long-standing power dynamics.

The underlying politics

When I began working in the Downtown Eastside, some of the professionals I interviewed for the consultation and some of my advisors made a point of telling me about the “political” landscape of the Downtown Eastside. I got the feeling I was being given insider information the speaker considered essential to my survival. I was told that the organizations that provided housing and health and social services were the most powerful force in the politics of the Downtown Eastside and that “the big ten” were the most influential.

This list of ten included non-profit organizations, churches, and city-funded community centres. These organizations had influence because they were large, and/or had been around a long time, and/or their Executive Director was particularly outspoken or charismatic or respected for their dedication to their work. Not everybody’s top ten list was exactly the same. There were 12 or 13 organizations in total whose clout was generally acknowledged.

I was told that most of the organizations in the neighbourhood, especially the largest and most influential ones, tended to be aligned with one of two power brokers. These two men were both high-profile activists who had worked on behalf of low-income or drug-addicted residents in the Downtown Eastside for a long time. They were both combative street-fighters who had succeeded in gaining government support for initiatives they spearheaded. And by all accounts, they hated each other.

Government initiativesIt didn’t take long for me to understand why some people described these two men as “mafia bosses.” Both men had formal positions that gave them a certain amount of power, but most of their power was informal. They knew everybody. Over the course of decades of work in the Downtown Eastside they had cultivated both allies and adversaries. They had histories of credits and debts they could draw on when they wanted to promote or kill a particular initiative or idea. So they were called on by other people to either create groundswells of support or waves of opposition for particular ideas. I even heard stories of horse-trading that included threats of engineering the withdrawal of an organization’s funding if the organization did not endorse something the “boss” wanted done.

I personally did not want to have anything to do with this not-so-subterranean play of power. And I believed it would be important for the university to avoid being seen as aligned with one camp or another, whether the defining factor was ideological or a matter of personal allegiance. I believed the university could appropriately play a useful role as a neutral broker at some point in the future so it would be important for me and my staff to remain non-aligned. So we intentionally side-stepped any attempts to get us to choose one camp over another and avoided taking explicit stands on issues, explaining when asked that we were newcomers and did not have sufficient understanding of the issues.

UBC had unknowingly blundered into this contested landscape in its initial efforts to enlist support for its proposed Downtown Eastside initiative. I think this was part of the reason UBC’s initiative was so strongly resisted at first. The university had managed to offend the leaders of both camps. From my point of view, this was a blessing. It meant my team and I were able to start from a position of being outsiders to both camps. Nobody assumed anything about where we were in the power structure. This gave us the freedom to learn about the power dynamics for ourselves and to form alliances based on our own perceptions about who could be trusted and whose interests and values were aligned with ours.

Gradually, as we identified kindred spirits and pursued promising ideas with other organizations, we created ties to individuals and organizations in both camps. The growing network of connections we were building and the fact that we were part of UBC, which was seen as a source of credibility, meant that the Learning Exchange started to get invited to events in the Downtown Eastside. We were not on the short list of the organizations with influence, but we did make it onto the long list of organizations that needed to be included.

One of the events I was invited to was a Future Search workshop that took place in March 2001. The workshop was sponsored by the Vancouver Agreement. It was an ambitious effort to get all the relevant players in the same room to develop a coherent vision for the revitalization of the Downtown Eastside. The workshop involved about 100 people representing the spectrum of interests in the neighbourhood: businesspeople, low-income residents, grassroots organizations like VANDU, health and social service professionals, government representatives, private foundation leaders, and a few outliers like me.

The consultants who organized the workshop used the usual array of facilitation techniques to try to generate a consensus about where the neighbourhood needed to go and how it could get there. People brainstormed ideas, discussed barriers and opportunities, and networked during the coffee breaks. But the differences among the players in the room were too much for the well-meaning efforts of the facilitators. Histories of cooperation or competition created undercurrents of attraction or repulsion. For example, during one small group discussion period, two men at a table near me erupted in angry shouts. Looking over, I saw a Chinatown merchant and a drug user on the verge of punching each other. I was not surprised. I thought back to an earlier conversation I had with a businessman in Chinatown who was disgusted that drug users were hanging around the area. He said that Vancouver should be treating drug users the way they were treated in China. Thinking that maybe he would tell me about an innovative treatment program, I asked, “How does China treat drug users?” “They shoot them,” he replied.

Despite the pervasive tensions, the event produced the usual flip chart list of hopeful next steps. At the follow-up mini-workshop a month later, the discussion turned to who was going to lead the implementation of these next steps. The Vancouver Agreement representatives wanted government staff to be responsible. But the leaders of Community Directions were adamant that residents needed to take the lead. After some acrimonious debate, the government people surrendered.

A working group was created for each next step. Each was to have a diverse make-up, but low-income residents were in charge. In most groups, professionals and bureaucrats were assigned roles as mentors to the leaders from Community Directions. I joined the task force on education and learning. I volunteered to be a mentor to the resident who was the chair but I was instructed that I was only to offer advice or support if the chair requested it.

A few weeks later, our task force met for the first time. The meeting had no structure or agenda. There was no reference to the content that had come out of the Future Search workshop. Quite early, the chair announced that Simon Fraser University had come out with an idea about an education program for people in the Downtown Eastside which sounded pretty good to her so she was going to support that idea. She thought that everyone else should do the same and that therefore the group could disband. I and others argued that this proposed program might be worthwhile but it might not address all the priorities the group had been mandated to pursue. Eventually, the chair agreed that maybe it would make sense to meet again, but you could tell her heart was not in it. On my way to the second meeting of the group, I tripped on an uneven section of sidewalk, and ended up in Emergency with a badly sprained rotator cuff, so I missed the meeting. It was the last. Most of the other task groups shared the same fate.

Being accepted

I began to understand how complex the political minefield of the Downtown Eastside really was. There were sectors with differing cultures and priorities: government; non-profit organizations; and business. These sectors had subdivisions. For example, non-profits had different orientations; they could be grass-roots organizations, churches, or large government-funded service providers. The business category could include long-standing family businesses in Chinatown, start-ups drawn to the low rents in the area, or organized crime. Although a lot of rhetorical attention was paid to the interests, needs, and priorities of “residents,” this too, was not a monolithic group. “Residents” could be artists, sex workers, union activists, drug addicts, recent immigrants, Chinese people whose families had lived in the area for generations, resource industry workers whose hard labour had made them disabled or chronically ill, mentally ill people who were homeless, well-educated professionals who had fallen on hard times or low-income families with small children.

People and organizations had observable, formal power as well as hidden, informal power. Some connections between the various players were obvious and easily understood; other links were obscure, comprehensible only to those with inside information.

It did not take long for me to realize that not everyone was playing by the same rules. In some cases it was just a matter of different cultural norms. In other cases the differences between the surface and the depths were more insidious. What the dissolution of the Future Search task groups taught me (and what I was beginning to suspect based on my experiences at the storefront) was that some of the players were actually not even playing the same game.

It was a daunting environment to navigate. The approach my team and I took at first was to keep our eyes and ears (and hearts) open and our mouths shut. We took every interaction at face value, knowing that much might be lurking beneath the surface but making no effort to engage directly with those layers of the power dynamic. Our stance was that we were newcomers who needed to learn as much as we could. We tried to be helpful wherever we found ourselves. We tried to become trusted by being trustworthy.

Gradually, the idea that UBC’s initiative posed a threat faded. The storefront, my team, and I became part of the landscape. We were not part of the central power structure. But we were no longer blatant outsiders. Ironically, the creation of the storefront turned out to be one of the big reasons why the Learning Exchange became accepted. I learned this one day when I was talking with Dean Wilson, then the President of VANDU. We were talking generally about the state of the Downtown Eastside and how it could be improved. Dean, a long-time heroin addict who can be very intense, locked eyes with me and said, “Margo, when you get up in the morning tomorrow and look in the mirror, I want you to say to yourself, ‘I am saving lives.’ Because you are.” I obviously looked doubtful because Dean went on to say, “No, I mean it. No other mainstream institution has actually come down here and put down roots. We trust you.” The very thing that was at first so strongly resisted–UBC’s occupation of physical space—had become a symbol of UBC’s sincerity.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Music as a bridge.

For more on the Downtown Eastside and the dynamics of social marginalization, go to Being on the outside.