Vancouver, both sides

I’m visiting Vancouver to give a speech and take a vacation. It’s awesome. But not completely.

Just a warning — this post starts as a sunny story but there is adult material coming, some heartbreaking, and not in a good way. If you don’t want that in your day, please just don’t read this.

I’ve been all over the world and Vancouver is the friendliest city I have visited. I’m spectacularly impressed with this place.

First off, where else can you visit a cosmopolitan downtown filled with gleaming towers overlooking a harbor — and see green mountains in middle distance. I am a sucker for pine-covered mountains. If I lived here I would never stop looking out the window.

My wife and I have only sampled Vancouver for a couple of days, but, wow. Stanley Park is 1000 acres of seawall and lagoons and massive evergreens and rose gardens and, yes, a model railroad and an aquarium. If you visit here in June it will refresh your soul. Early on a Sunday morning it was quiet and just the tonic for our jet lagged souls.

We’ve visited the vast collection of food halls and artists studios at Granville Island. We dined al fresco in Gastown across from the steam-powered clock — a sort of cross between Big Ben and a calliope — as we watched classic muscle cars drive by. We’ve gotten everywhere on the ubiquitous buses and SkyTrain, taken a tiny ferry to get to Granville, even tried the bike share. Every single interaction was gracious and friendly, down to the people on the buses giving up seats when they see my wife’s cane.

If you’ve read my travelogues before, you know we like to stay in places that immerse us in interesting parts of the culture of the places we visit. In Vancouver, this is a hotel called Skwachàys Lodge, run by aboriginal people in part to benefit the First Nations people here. Each room is decorated by an aboriginal artist in a style that connects to the tribe and the land.

Here’s where the hard part starts. Skwachàys is in a rough part of town called Downtown Eastside. Downtown Eastside has a lot of homeless people and drug addicts in it. As you walk along the street you see people in abject suffering — some shaking, some in wheelchairs. There is odor. Some of these people look happier than others, but they are living the roughest possible life.

They are not threatening or menacing. A few asked us for money, but like everyone else in Vancouver, they were very polite.

The city of Vancouver has tried various strategies to deal with these folks, including a safe injection site coupled with a rehab facility. This is controversial — it doesn’t solve the problem, and probably doesn’t contribute to it, but who knows. I’m not here to discuss the politics of it.

These people and their suffering are part of our trip now.

You may ask why we didn’t avoid this experience. But this is part of Vancouver, along with the pine trees and the steam-powered clock and the great seafood.

Some people vacation to escape. I guess I do want to escape, but what I want to escape from is the routine of home. I want to experience other places and other people.

I will not forget Vancouver, or those people, any more than I will forget the beautiful rose garden or the joy of navigating back to our hotel on bike shares. Or the people cheering madly in the bars as Toronto nearly took its first NBA championship, just a few feet from these suffering people.

I wish I could package up my experience into a nice near lesson for you. That is what writers are supposed to do. What is the moral of my story? I don’t know.

I don’t know if you should try to avoid pain like this on your vacation. If this bothers you — and it should — I certainly wouldn’t judge you for avoiding it.

I don’t know what Vancouver — and every other city in the world — should do about the homeless and the addicts.

I do know that the world is full of people who are not like you. You can spend your life avoiding encountering them, but what kind of a life is that?

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  1. I’m right down the road in Seattle. I would have loved the opportunity to meet you in person and talk shop. Enjoy your vacation!

    1. Hi Anne,
      Josh is speaking right now at the Hotel Vancouver at the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) 2019 World Conference!

  2. Glad you enjoyed Vancouver. And, yes, East Hastings is as you describe. What’s the answer? The newest thinking is that it begins with stable housing, so that these people are no longer homeless. Having a home takes away so many of the other issues they face, namely, where am I going to sleep tonight? Or eat, or have a shower, etc. A total cost analysis shows it’s more efficient than paying for all the other needs they have, and it’s often the beginning of a stable life.

    Next time you visit Vancouver, take a ferry to one of the islands. Great views and the islands are a lot of fun. And if you didn’t see the Museum of Anthropology on the UBC campus, it’s a must, given your interest in local culture.

  3. Good read. What you describe fits any of the ‘booming’ cities on the west coast that I’ve visited, save Portland, OR. My wife and I will be visiting Vancouver next month for our wedding anniversary and we’re really looking forward to it. I’ve only been to one gleaming city that didn’t have a homeless problem, and that was Singapore… drugs really, really illegal and homeless people are given free housing that they own, not rent subsidies. Seems to work there, but I don’t think anyone in America wants to institute the death penalty for drugs, nor buy homes for the homeless when they themselves are working hard to pay their own bills. So, we end up with some % of people homeless and potentially addicted to drugs and no real solution to the problem.

  4. I like that you experience the many varied parts of the place when you visit, and don’t just get the sanitized and Disney-fied version. I like the grittier parts of most cities (as long as they’re safe) – like The Mission district of San Francisco. It’s one of the reasons why my wife and I don’t do cruises – we want to get out of the mainstream and off the beaten (touristy) path and into the flow of the places we visit, in order to really experience it and attempt to understand it better. Rent a car; try to navigate somewhere interesting; get lost along the way; see something unexpected… those are the memorable parts of travel you’ll remember most vividly after the pretty mountains and quaint shops all start to seem the same.

  5. I’ve volunteered in the Downtown Eastside, as my work situation allowed me to, over several years. It’s BC’s epicentre of the opioid crisis, made even worse in recent years with the addition of fentanyl to the street supply of drugs.

    What many people who see it as a stain on Vancouver’s beauty and reputation or who think of it as a pit of moral failings don’t realize, is that some of the actions developed in the DTES have been copied around the world for their effectiveness. Providing free, judgement-free drug testing for their safety (i.e. to identify if they have fentanyl in them) and the safe-injection site are the most obvious. (I could list more if I could find my notes from a Roddan Lecture presentation from 2017 – see your next blog about disorganization!)

    DTES organizations have said for years that the ‘solution’ must start with housing for everyone – how can a person pursue a stable life if they can’t even see a doctor or social worker because they’re not allowed to bring in the shopping cart that holds everything that matters to them and that will be raided if they leave it outside?

    There are several organizations there that are seeking solutions and advocating for them while providing practical help to those in need – shelter beds, a locked storage facility where homeless people can keep their belongings safe, allowing street people to use their showers, providing their address for people to receive mail, providing Christmas cards and postage for people to reach out to family members they may not have contacted for years, etc. The place where I volunteer uses 60-plus lbs of coffee per week because it offers a meeting place for those who have nowhere else to go. It also serves 2,500 meals per week, runs a 60-bed shelter, and oversees social housing sites.

    Most of the homeless are there because of abuse and/or mental illness that have led to their addictions. We can’t go back and change what has happened to them, but we can make a difference going forward.

  6. what nancy said especially “Most of the homeless are there because of abuse and/or mental illness that have led to their addictions. We can’t go back and change what has happened to them, but we can make a difference going forward.” <— my wife worked in the DTES and this is spot on. universal healthcare, housing, decriminalization, etc will all help as studies in the DTES and Portugal and elsewhere have shown.

    on on completely different note: if you are ever in vancouver again, i have recommendations for restaurants and a few museums (Beaty Biodiversity Museum!)