I am Canadian, and my identity as a Canadian is something I cherish. I feel grateful because I was born in a country with a vibrant landscape where every person has access to healthcare. All children can receive an education and an opportunity to be literate. As a country, we appreciate the diverse cultures, the customs, and beliefs of all many types of Canadians. Despite all these beautiful strengths, there are still places in Canada where people are struggling, and one of those places is in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.
I was born in North Vancouver, although I lived in Nelson from two years old until I was thirteen years old. Hume was my elementary school and I spent two thirds of grade eight at Trafalgar. By the time I was fifteen, I had moved back to Vancouver, and by the age of sixteen, I was living in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. The DTES was my home for years, and there are lots of people who still consider the DTES their home. My thoughts are filled with my memories from the DTES because it was the place where I felt I belonged the most.
In January 2018, I returned to Nelson. There are people in Nelson who have never lived in the DTES, but they refer to it as if it were a terrible place. It is a difficult place to live. But when I lived in the area, I learned that it encompassed far more than just the suffering and the misery that people assume is there.
The truth is, the DTES is a community filled with intriguing people. The people there live unusual lives and have interesting stories to share. It is home to artists, writers, poets, comedians, and Native carvers. The residents in the DTES all have unique stories to share, but their reasons for living in the DTES are similar: most are suffering from addiction, mental health problems and untreated trauma. As a result of those problems, the residents in the area are poor. But they still have dreams, like people everywhere.
It’s difficult for me to align my own experiences or my sense of comfort in the DTES with the provocative language that I read, usually written by people who haven’t lived in the area. I’m left feeling like the people who authored the articles have cheated the residents out of speaking their own truths.
The people who live in the DTES have always accepted their fair share of misery, bad luck, and death, but they pour those all together and mix them up with a few blissful moments, blessed weather, laughter, endless gossip, and a reversed clock, so day is night, and night is day. Drama is the currency that wakes everyone up and then keeps them going, without sleep, often for ridiculously long amounts of time. In the doorways, and down the alleyways around East Hastings Street, resilience forms despite the struggles people face. Nobody has a plan for tomorrow, because finding the things someone needs for the day always takes a precedence.
I feel a protectiveness towards this area of Vancouver. Hastings Street is sometimes called the worst street in North America. Newspaper articles describe the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown as, ‘scary and dismal’. Articles characterize the area as solely focused on ‘theft, violence and extortion’. I wonder if that misinformation is intentional. These negative stories judge the residents, then silence them, without ever allowing them to voice their thoughts about their home. People view the neighborhood based on those kinds of depictions, but they don’t appreciate its distinct culture.
The rest of the city feels different. It is a place full of prosperity and wealth and the opportunities those things provide.
The residents who live in the DTES live in poverty, without access to skills training, with limited mental health treatment, and unstable housing. Yet, they live only steps away from the propertied, affluent people who live in the neighborhoods that face the waterfront, and are moving closer every year. The two polarized neighborhoods live on the doorsteps of one another.
The first room I rented in the DTES was at the Metropole Hotel, on the corner of Abbott and Cordova, when I was sixteen. I rented a room to share it with my best friend, Rebecca. Rebecca was impressive. She carried her wrinkled clothing and her black eye makeup and lipstick, in a little ripped, red plastic suitcase. She wore her hair dyed black, parted down the middle, and when she bent her head to light a cigarette, her hair fell forward, covering her face and eyes. Her eyes were beautiful, cerulean blue, so blue they seemed unnatural, like the painted, plastic eyes placed inside a ceramic doll. A perfect black circle outlined each blue iris, and her eyelashes were long, like sweeping butterflies. When she spoke, her eyelashes were like butterfly wings, opening, and closing. She let me wear her clothing and use her makeup and her pre-grunge style, was refreshing, compared to how other teenagers were dressing. We both wore black patented Fleuvog flats with extremely pointed toes. We pierced our noses with a safety pin, sitting on the old, worn out bed in the Metropole, the same bed we shared, and slept on, pushed together for warmth, because our one solitary blanket was threadbare. We left the large window in our room wide open because it faced Abbott Street. It allowed us to hear people calling up to our room if they wanted us to come downstairs. Rebecca organized everyone. She was bossy and talkative, and good at finding new things to do, and even better at finding people who wanted to do those things with us.
Rebecca was fifteen, but the cheap hotels allowed renters without an ID or a credit card, and without an age restriction. All through the nineties and long before, people young and old rented rooms in the hotels on Hastings Street and Granville Street because they were cheap and accessible. By the early 2000’s, the provincial government stepped in, and acquired twenty-three single room occupancy hotels, to use for social housing. Part of the historic Woodward’s building became social housing. The social housing floors face Hastings Street, and from Cordova Street there is an entrance for the apartments rented for market value. Those rentals are modern, luxurious and include a doorman.
The government hired non-profit agencies to manage the hotels. For the residents living in the hotels, it was a huge adjustment. Prior to that, the most important rules the residents followed were unspoken ones, but everybody understood them, and the people who followed them were much better off than the few people who ignored them.
The rules were simple. There was a hierarchy inside of the hotels: at the top was the drug dealer who claimed the hotel, and beneath him was his girlfriend, and then his people who worked in the hotel. The drug dealer had the final say about everything that happened in the hotel. That was the first rule. The second rule was that a tenant needed to pay for their own drugs and pay for their guest fees. Occasionally, someone would show up in a building who had never lived in the DTES, and quickly they started asking the other tenants for constant favors, like for cigarettes, or to borrow money, or they didn’t want to pay their guest fees, or they would beg the dealer for free dope. People did ‘cuff ‘ drugs and pay later, but only if the dealers knew them for a long time, or they bought drugs everyday and paid off their debts. If a person ignored the rules, the dealer kicked them out of the building and barred them from returning.
The ubiquitous guest fees caused more problems and screaming arguments and physical fights than anything else in the hotels. Every hotel enforced a mandatory guest fee to go upstairs and to see a tenant. When someone refused to pay the guest fee, the desk guy locked the elevator with a button installed underneath the desk, in his plexiglass office. The best way to fix a guest fee problem was to negotiate a deal with the desk guy, so he allowed your guests upstairs. He accepted drugs or cash as a payment.
The desk guy was usually an older, male resident. He worked a twelve-hour shift, from seven PM to seven AM. It was normal for the hotel owner to pay him forty dollars per shift. He sat inside the office, and he watched everyone who came into the hotel, and he collected their guest fees. The desk guy had access to the keys, for the rooms upstairs, and if the police wanted to open someone’s door because the tenant had warrants or because they wanted to search someone’s room for drugs, they needed to get the keys from the desk guy.
If I lived in a hotel for any length of time, I became friends with the desk guy. Once we were friends, he would phone me upstairs in my room when the police got on the elevator and warn me if they asked him for the keys to my floor.
The old hotels in the DTES have rickety, ancient elevators, and God help you if one of those elevators breaks down, and you get stuck between floors. There is no company to call with the parts for a hundred-year-old elevator. Only the fire department can pry you out, and it takes hours. If I dropped something small and expensive as I stepped off the elevator, inevitably it would fall into the slot where the elevator doors opened onto the hallway, but the hallway floor didn’t meet up with the edge of the elevator’s door. If that happened, I was out of luck, because even my guy at the desk wasn’t going down to the basement to retrieve what I dropped. The stories about the basement were real. Anything could be down there, from cockroaches to rats, to a body.
When I was twenty-two, I rented a room in the Brandiz Hotel, on the 100 block of Hastings. Lloyd lived in the Brandiz too, and he was my friend. His door was beside mine, on the fourth floor, close to the elevators. Lloyd was a thin, pale skinned Native man with brown eyes and brown hair. He wore oversized glasses, the type given away for free, or sold in a cheap second-hand store, like a store owned by a church. His lens made his eyes look huge. Lloyd kept his small room spotless, although he owned few possessions. In his room was a single bed, made up neatly, and a chair. There was an old desk which doubled as a table and a small closet. Sometimes, he owned a television, but often he did not because if he was too broke he would sell his old TV for ten dollars. He allowed wayward girls to sleep on his bed; often three girls sprawled across his bed, fully clothed, while he sat upright in his chair. He never complained or asked them to leave. He just waited. Sometimes he waited for twenty-four hours before he could lay down.
Lloyd only ever raised his voice for one reason: when he was terrified thinking about bugs or because he thought he could feel bugs on his body. If he reached over his shoulder to scratch and felt something, he thought he felt bugs on his back, then he thought the bugs were underneath his clothing. Lloyd’s thoughts terrified him to the point of becoming hysterical. He would run up and down the hallway, ripping his clothes off and screaming, “They’re on me, they’re on me!!”
If I heard Lloyd shouting, I would come out of my room to try to calm him down. It was difficult to get his attention.
If I could get him to stop for a minute, and he turned around, I would rub my hands over his back so he knew he was okay, the bugs were gone. But other times, nothing calmed him down.
I feel ashamed because the first time I saw Lloyd having a ‘fit’, I laughed at him. He was naked and in a frenzy. I thought he was joking. The friend I was with told me to shut up. He told me not to laugh at Lloyd. My friend asked me, “Are you better than Lloyd?”
I stopped laughing.
I don’t know why Lloyd focused on bugs since his room was always clean, and he never had bugs in his room. While I was living in the Brandiz Hotel, the drug dealer in the hotel took a liking to Lloyd and hired him for odd jobs, like making runs to the store or folding the lottery paper envelopes used to package drugs to give him extra income.
When I was twenty-eight, I found myself living in the Brandiz again, on the fourth floor, but down the hallway from Lloyd. My door was propped open when the old man, Big John who lived across the hall from me called me over to his room. John was overweight, gruff, a silver haired, old man who had spent years working in mines. He was not a friendly person, but I had known him for years, and he also liked Lloyd because everybody did.
“Lloyd’s sick. He’s in St. Paul’s hospital and the social worker is trying to find out if he has any family members who can come to the hospital.”
I felt shocked because I’d seen Lloyd just a couple of days before. Lloyd told me that he had a brother somewhere in Vancouver. I told Big John about his brother.
Everyday, I went to John’s room to ask him how Lloyd was, and if they found his brother. Big John said Lloyd wouldn’t be leaving the hospital, not ever. Also, they had not found his brother. I felt heartsick. The fourth floor of the Brandiz, at that time, was the place all my best friends lived. There was me, Neil, Kenny, Chanel, a transgender woman, Dan, Lloyd, sometimes Robin, and Rebecca. Rebecca lived on the third floor, but because of the way our rooms were situated, my open window faced her open window. I found Kenny and Dan, and the three of us took a cab to the hospital to see Lloyd. When we arrived, I realized it was an intensive care unit. I asked the nurse if we could see Lloyd. The nurse said that first we needed to know that Lloyd was on life support. She said, if you’ve never seen a person on life support, it can be upsetting.
Poor, sweet Lloyd, all alone and dying in the hospital. Not one other soul came to see him. He was laying on the bed with a tube breathing for him. I touched his hand, and I said, “I love you Lloyd.”
The next day at the hotel, Big John called me back over to his door. He told me that the hospital had found Lloyd’s brother.
I knew John was lying to me. Lloyd hadn’t seen his brother in thirty years, so it was probable his brother wasn’t even alive. Big John, who was always complaining about the traffic to my door, wanted me to believe that the hospital had found Lloyd’s brother so I wouldn’t feel sad.
The darkest part of living in an impoverished area is the outsiders who pray on the women living there. Throughout the 1990’s, women were disappearing from the neighborhood. Relatives who stayed in contact with their family in the DTES were reporting to the police that suddenly, they lost all contact. Women who for years rarely strayed outside of a ten-block radius were gone. They left their government cheques at the social services office, or their mailed cheques were never cashed. The street nurses began to keep lists of woman’s names if they were regular visitors to the outreach van at Wish or the woman’s drop-in centre and had stopped coming.
The police were quick to point out that women living in the DTES were a transient population. Still, they were a predictable group of people with regular routines. The women needed to support their drug habits, and the drugs they needed were downtown. The residents of the DTES and those who worked in the DTES for years felt the females were not missing; someone had murdered them. Nobody familiar with the DTES could understand why the police seemed so reluctant to help.
In 2002, the police arrested Willy Pickton who admitted to an undercover cop that he had killed 49 women. The police only charged Pickton with the murders of six women, although they found the DNA and other evidence showing 29 of the missing women had been on his pig farm.
One of the missing women was Sarah Devries. Sarah was my sweet, beautiful, thoughtful friend. We shared hotel rooms at various times. She often left pieces of paper scrawled with her poetry, or her private thoughts around the room. Sarah told me her family had adopted her when she was a baby, and although her parents and her siblings were white, Sarah’s ancestry was a combination of Black and Native. Her skin was light brown, and she had warm, brown eyes. Sarah’s hair was black and curly, and she was exceptionally pretty.
The last time anyone saw Sarah was April 12, 1998. She was 28 years old when she went missing.
One day I was unlocking my hotel door when I noticed a business card tucked in the doorframe. It was from a Vancouver police detective, a woman, and on the back of the card she wrote that she wanted me to call her number because she was one of the detectives working on the Willy Pickton case. She thought I might be able to answer questions for her, questions that could help the police build a case against Willy Pickton. It was confusing because I knew nothing about Pickton. What I did know was the cruel way members of the police treated the residents of the DTES, so I was hesitant to trust the police. They failed my community when they allowed a serial killer to continue targeting females, unhindered, due to their lackadaisical efforts.
After thinking things through, I called the detective back. We met in my room. She asked if we could sit down, so I sat on the edge of my bed. She sat on my only armchair.
I always decorated my hotel room; it was pretty and clean. I usually paid someone to paint my room, and I bought velvet pillow covers and used an eyelet bed skirt to hide the bottom of an ugly bed. Flowered bedding covered my bed and I bought prints and artwork from a small store in Gastown to cover my walls. I watched the detective checking everything out. “I know that it’s just a hotel room,” I said, “but I tried to make it look nice”.
Why did I care what she thought? At that moment, sitting across from a woman whose entire life was diametrically different from my own, the only thing I felt powerful enough to do was to apologise to her because I thought my room wasn’t nice enough. I should have asked her if she felt guilty when she considered women like my friend Sarah who was tortured and murdered because the police didn’t think finding the person who was killing them was important enough to use all their resources, the way they would if any other group of women were missing.
All through the 1990’s, the police refused to acknowledge what every person on the street, including the volunteers, nurses, and outreach workers, all acknowledged. Someone was targeting the most vulnerable females in the DTES. The person found his victims while he was driving around the DTES track, at night, only one or two blocks away from the building where the entire police force worked. The street nurses were also driving around at night, in the areas where the woman frequented, giving out condoms and harm reduction supplies. They reported watching a man drag a female into his vehicle. They tried to reach the man’s vehicle before he drove away, but they were unsuccessful.
The police were driving around the same area, but they were unable to find a person of interest until 1998. In 1998, the police received two tips, each one naming Pickton, as the man responsible for the disappearances of the DTES women. Even with that information, and a third tip that also named Pickton (which they disregarded because the police claimed the informant wasn’t credible) police and the RCMP didn’t bother to interview Pickton until 2000, two years later. During the interview, Pickton offered to allow the RCMP search his property. The RCMP never bothered to follow up on Pickton’s offer.
A paid informant eventually told a rookie constable that he had seen a gun at Willy Pickton’s farm. The RCMP constable asked a judge to issue a search warrant, for the Pickton farm, and the judge agreed. On Pickton’s farm, police found samples of DNA from dozens of missing women from the DTES and other evidence that Pickton murdered the woman on his property.
The police detective sitting in my room handed me a stack of photographs. They were pictures of females from the DTES, and she asked me if I could tell her the names of the women in the pictures. I looked at every picture and told her the first names of the girls, if I knew them. When I came to the picture of a young, Native girl, 17 or 18 years old, I recognized her, and held the picture up to show the detective the girl’s face. I told her the girl’s name was Olivia. I explained to her when I had seen Olivia for the last time. The detective said,
“Thank you, it’s very helpful to know her name”.
When I finished looking at all the pictures and naming the women I knew, the detective collected up her photos and left. Later, I felt perplexed. Why did a police detective come to see me for names she must have already known? She had pictures of them, she must have known who they were. Why did she write on her card that she wanted to see me to ask me questions about Pickton when I had never met him?
After living in the DTES for a long time, I felt apprehensive around the police. I watched while they did things, things that the childhood version of myself wouldn’t have believed the police would do. Not every person who belonged to the police force, or the RCMP, was a bad person. But the ones who were? They were hard for me to forget.
When I was still a teenager, two police drove up to apprehend a man, a stranger, who had grabbed me while I was walking down East 8th Street. He was trying to violently assault me. I thought the police had come to help me. They handcuffed the man and put him in the back of their police car while I sat on the ground, shocked. I listened while the police radioed the man’s information from his ID to the police dispatcher. The dispatcher quickly answered with the man’s history. He was from another province, and he had earlier convictions for assaulting woman.
Even so, the one policeman approached me and asked, “Do owe this guy money or something, bitch?”.
Even today, I’m unsure why the female detective asked me to name the females in the photos she showed me, but I do know that the police did not do everything they could do to protect the women who lived in the DTES. As a result, women died, alone, on a dirty, miserable farm, in the dark, at the hands of someone who enjoyed destroying them.
Dave Dickson is a former police constable who retired from the city police, and he was hired to work at the Lookout Society. He was a well-liked policeman in the DTES, and a policeman for over twenty years. If you were from the DTES and you didn’t recognize Dave’s face, you would have recognized his name because he was a well-known advocate for women.
He was walking downtown one day, carrying a pack of cigarettes in his hand, so I asked him for a cigarette. We got to talking and I asked him if he was still a policeman. He told me that he retired because he was frustrated with the attitudes of his fellow police officers and his superiors. During the period when the women were disappearing, Dave Dickson brought lists and information to his bosses. He was insistent that he saw a pattern. He felt one person was causing the disappearances, but his bosses refused to listen to him. The men he worked for referred to the missing women as “crack hoes” and “a waste of time”.
That type of hatred is familiar in my life.
But I know that a person’s value is not decided by their address, and a person’s value is not decided by the people who choose to hate them. The people who live in the DTES are valuable. They are valuable because they are human beings.
I loved every part of the DTES, from the hidden laneway behind Gastown to the hotel rooftops that people hopped across before the buildings started to be torn down. I loved the alleyways through Chinatown. Those unlit, hidden places, only the residents know about, are not places for the faint of heart.
The DTES had a way of chipping away at all the layers of my exterior, until each layer crumbled and fell to the ground. My soul, raw and jagged, was exposed, and it was all I had left. Then, like all the people who live in the DTES, I learned how to survive, depending on my own crafty resources, and the people I met who cared for me and helped me in thousands of ways.
My heart belongs to the area referred to as the poorest postal code in Canada. Because I have seen and felt so much hatred in my life, I choose to be kind. When I have not acted kindly, I stop to ask myself, “Do you think you are better than they are?”
Then, I think about my old friend Lloyd.
About the Author
Meredith MacDonald moved to Nelson in January of 2018 after living many years in the DTES. In 2019, she signed up for CWRT 100 with Leesa Dean and liked the class and the other students so much that she took all the other CWRT classes. She is currently enrolled in other UAS courses including Philosophy and is excited to have her personal essay published in the Black Bear Review.