British Columbia

'It's getting worse and worse': DTES residents say neighbourhood is 'falling apart'

Concerns from local business and police mount as tent city at Oppenheimer Park grows.

"It looks very intimidating for someone who hasn't been down here — It can look pretty crazy'

East Hastings Street in downtown Vancouver, between Columbia and Carrall streets. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Julie Louise Chapman tries her best to make Vancouver's Downtown Eastside a better place. The 18-year community resident writes poetry for the local street paper, Megaphoneaimed at reducing the stigma associated with poverty and drug use.

"It looks very intimidating for someone who might not be down here or hasn't been down here — It can look pretty crazy," Chapman, 50, told CBC News.

"To me, it's like that much more of a motivator to be part of the solution.

But after nearly two decades on the front lines — speaking for and providing support to local residents — she admits the notorious community seems to have taken a turn for the worse.

"The last two years have been the worst changes, I think," she said. "A lot of homelessness, a lot of drug use out in the open. You never used to see that at all, maybe not to that degree."

It's a sentiment that's been echoed by local politicians, police, community advocates, local business owners, and countless neighbourhood residents: the quality of life in the community — deteriorating for years as residents grapples with homelessness, poverty, and the ongoing opioid crisis — seems to have hit an historic low.

Julie Louise Chapman of Megaphone Magazine says stigmatizing the residents of Vancouver’s downtown east side isn’t going to make anything better. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Growing pains

Among the most visible issue currently dividing the community is the growing tent city at Oppenheimer Park. Advocates say more than 200 people now live there.

Police have issued a public safety warning for the area, noting a sharp increase in violent crime. A man was shot in the area in July.

Meanwhile, many nearby businesses are struggling as a result of the encampment and want the park returned to its original form, according to the Strathcona Business Improvement Association.

"This will get worse," said Karen Ward, a community advocate and drug policy adviser for the city. Ward says the ongoing opioid crisis has instilled a sense of hopelessness through the community, and it's reflected in the behaviour of many residents.

Karen Ward, a local drug policy advocate, is worried about the state of Vancouver’s downtown east side on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

She says the community used to be self-regulated, built on an unwritten code of ethics between residents that now seems to have dissipated.

"You don't rip off your friends. You don't mess up the place where you live. You don't hurt or take advantage of people who are weaker ... there was a code. You look out for each other — it's falling apart."

Like many advocates, Ward says residents inside the growing tent city are safer in Oppenheimer Park than they would be in the street, largely because there are more supports in place, including overdose prevention.

Despite rumours swirling within the camp, the City of Vancouver hasn't said if it intends to shut it down, instead claiming it intends to find living options for people living there.

Karen Ward, a local drug policy advocate, walks through Blood Alley on Vancouver’s Gastown on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Enduring

For nearby residents like Peter Soukup, the encampment is the latest symbol of just how tough times are.

"It's getting worse and worse to be honest. Crystal meth — a lot of young people on it. There's a lot of people using crack. You can buy it up the street, no problem," he told CBC News. "I'm immune to it. I'm used to it. I don't pay it no mind. I'm part of it — I'm here."

Soukup collects discarded recyclable containers from neighbourhoods throughout the city.

When asked why he, and many others, continue to live in the community, his answer was blunt.

"I come here for the food and the resources," he said. "You can eat every day and eat well without spending money. And then you can use your money to buy drugs."

Peter 'Kash Ola' Soukup says the number of services for the poor and homeless on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are what keeps him in the neighbourhood. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

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