Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) community was once described as “Our 4 Blocks of Hell” on the cover of the local newspaper. The DTES has remained an epicenter of demonization for almost a century. The public perception of this area focusses on how it has been home to some of the city’s most marginalized for generations: the unemployed, mentally ill, addicted, homeless, and individuals in the survival sex trade. Like many communities subjected to negative characterization, it has become “a zone of abandonment” (Biehl 2013) in the public eye without attention to the strengths and assets that exist there. We hope our collective stories illustrate a rival space, a “zone of acceptance,” where women seeking to heal from psychosocial wounds stand together on the threshold of successful lives. Our stories offer narratives about dignity, vocation, and community esteem.
The DTES was once home to Vancouver’s first City Hall, hotel industry, business and financial sector. Despite marking the beginning of the city, this history has been largely forgotten. Today, many of the century-old hotels are dilapidated, and their tiny rooms with shared bathrooms offer substandard stop-gap housing for the poor. The monthly rents ($375) mirror the government shelter allowance. The DTES has been characterized by the general public as without hope. In the years leading up to the establishment of East Vancouver Roasters (EVR), buildings near its eventual site were so stigmatized that postal workers refused to deliver mail, and even the most dedicated mental health workers would not enter some of them. The real estate prices were so low that entire hotels and significant heritage buildings could be purchased for less than the price of a single-family dwelling elsewhere in the city. By the 1990s, injection drug use, overdoses, and the HIV rate had reached epidemic levels. Public understandings of the area did not include any attention to the existing assets or strengths that existed within this community.
Low Barrier Employment: Work Without Borders
Article author Dan Small (DS) worked in the development of health care, housing, and psychosocial rehabilitative programs from 1996-2014 (e.g., supervised injection, housing for active drug addicts, needle exchange, and a drug users resource center). The people served by these programs were often socially compromised by ideas in the wider public about addiction that characterized them as blameworthy (Goffman 1986 (1963); Small 2004).
It was within this context that DS began to develop low-barrier employment for people with multiple barriers (e.g., homelessness, addiction, mental illness) so they could attend a job meeting in the morning, work in the afternoon distributing clean syringes, and be paid in cash the same day, and work without identification, résumés, or experience with interviews. In contrast to traditional vocational rehabilitation programs that try to “get people ready to work” (e.g., prevocational skills training, volunteering, and résumé production), DS developed initiatives to “give people work to get them ready.”
As participants in these programs began to heal and manage the chaos in their lives, they could progress from short-time jobs offered on a day-by-day basis to making a commitment to a particular day, which became their weekly position. In time, individuals would be able to graduate into full-time, supervisory roles, where they had health benefits and received bi-weekly paychecks (rather than cash payment required by people living at the edge of survival).
Traditional employment programs at the time deployed a rehabilitative model employing people with barriers in precarious jobs like janitorial, garbage removal, or dishwashing. The programs were comprised of jobs, not dreams, and the idea that people in need could seek a vocation as well as employment was unfamiliar. While the wider public considered this to be a kind of “dirty work,” it was clear that different positions garnered symbolic capital for the participants (Hughes et al. 2017). We use the notion of symbolic capital here to refer to reputation, distinction, or prominence held by individuals “in proportion to the recognition they receive from a group” (Bourdieu 1995). Rather than simply having a job, such as mopping in a housing project, there was symbolic capital in work in needle exchange or supervised injection by virtue of the dignity associated with saving lives.
In this realm, DS imagined a social enterprise where employment would be a doorway to something more psychosocially relevant than work; it would be a vocation. It could be invested with dignity and be a place where anyone would want to work. The idea of EVR was born—a place where women enrolled in an addiction recovery program would work in the production of high-quality bean to bar chocolate and coffee roasting.
EVR is located on the same block as Vancouver’s Pigeon Park. The park has been a focal point of judgment and a symbolic center of under-privilege for 100 years. After the great depression, it was a grassy area where the unemployed congregated. Successive city governments attempted to address perceived social problems in the park, such as public drinking, in various ways, including trying to make it inhospitable by removing the benches and paving over the grass. The park has endured, along with the area around it, as a vibrant and eccentrically populated community. Today, while still called Pigeon Park by locals, it is a concrete triangle with a few benches and cement planters where the poor meet in a kind of outdoor living room.
Continue reading in the spring issue of Practicing Anthropology.