Taking a walk downtown: A personal essay

“They lose faith in themselves and they are fucking terrified of the reality.”

That is how people living on the streets in Downtown Eastside, more specifically, Hastings, are briefly described by Sharon Small, a 26-year-old street musician who experienced that life for over five years.

So, I walked around there.

The block before the tense zone, some fancy restaurants, with some people conscious and others unconscious of what is happening steps away from them – sitting down and enjoying their dishes with some glasses of wine, spending probably what one person in Downtown Eastside makes a month.

One block to the other is quite different. With an expensive camera in one hand (deceptively expecting to take sensational pictures) and my bag on my back, I decide to walk through this “dangerous” block.

Poor me. The first thing I hear when I step into this block (there are a heap of people) is from this old man with long, greyish hair and a big, hurt nose, yelling, “If you take any pictures I’m gonna break this fucking camera.”

I keep walking and my response is nothing but “I wont, don’t worry.”

There is no going back. I have to walk through this block. I put my camera inside my bag. I do not want to take the risk. The man from the corner starts screaming, “Camera, camera, camera…”

It is cold today.

I keep walking faster than usual, but careful and aware of everything that is around me.

An open exchange market works illegally. Dirty white towels spread on the ground serve as tables for all kinds of products, from regular pants to interesting parts of electronics.

Suspicious eyes stare at me while I pass through.

Other products are secretly commercialized in white boxes or mysterious bags. Drugs, probably? Maybe?

All the living are marked with bruises all over their bodies.

It is 3 p.m. Some people are sleeping (uncomfortably in the dirty corners, surrounded by trash and cardboard), others are talking, others are smoking and sometimes others are even injecting.

I go around the block – a totally different scenario in the other side, empty, quiet and cleaner – and then I come back to the same corner where I started. This time there is no need to pass through these people again. Not after being closely watched for many of them.

So, I cross the street. This side looks brighter and cleaner than the other, but still not bright enough and not clean enough.

I grab my phone from my pocket.

On my way to the closest bus stop, a young lady, apparently in her late 20s, walking Hasting Street from Downtown Eastside to Westside, passes by, smoking her cigarette in the left side of her mouth, while the right side is marred by huge wounds.

I sit down at the bus stop, trying to find a comfortable, protected and “invisible” space from which to look around. Behind me are only the glass of the bus stop and the walls of a cheap hotel.

I start taking notes in my phone.

Bikers on both sides pass as fast as they can, avoiding the scenario around them.

Regular people pass by, apparently clean, no bruises, no marks of pain.

All the buildings are closed, with thick grids protecting their doors and windows, reminding me an apocalyptic scenario. People inside the buildings, are producing and commercializing indescribable things.

People of different ages, the majority men. Is hard to describe them.

I can count at least seven people with disabilities stopped in this block.

A young guy – probably in his late 20s – tanned skin, short beard and short hair, wears a green basketball jersey. Both of his arms being showed off, possibly, his drug injection marks. He seats down beside me in the bus stop. He looks anxious. He takes out of his pocket a small package of herbs (apparently weed), accompanied of tissue paper and with no hesitation or shame he starts rolling.

Meanwhile, an older guy comes off the bus with some difficultly, holding two big bags full of recyclable material. He seems fine for me. He crosses in the middle of the busy Hasting Street – not even close to the lights – holding his bags. One of the bags rips from his hand, spreading empty cans in the middle of the street. He does not have much time to put all the cans back into the bag and get to his destination before being hit by a car.

Cars are getting closer to him. He kicks some cans to the other side of the street and, hugging his bags as he would a baby, he gets safely to his destination.

Few minutes later, the young guy, wearing the green basketball jersey, stops his rolling process beside me and starts madly talking to somebody about something that I hardly understand at the beginning.

There is no one around. He is talking to me.

“You can come here and say what you are seeing here, everybody does that. I don’t give a fuck! You can send your fucking messages about it! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!”

That is all I can understand.

He stands up and keeps saying something. He then walks away and all I can hear is “fuck, fuck, and fuck…!”

The first police car passes slowly.

It is time for me to catch the next bus and leave.


Journalism student, musician, sports lover, Brazilian, living in Vancouver! http://nemseinomear.wordpress.com


  • Shea Thomson
    Reply November 26, 2013

    Shea Thomson

    A very compelling story! the way you wrote it kept me interested in it the whole time. The P.O.V. made it especially compelling. I really like the end when you talk about the man that was yelling and swearing at you.“You can come here and say what you are seeing here, everybody does that. I don’t give a fuck! You can send your fucking messages about it!” It leaves me to think about how everyone has their stories of walking down Hastings. A great article to read!

    • Avatar
      Reply December 6, 2013

      Marcel Chaves da Silva

      I really agreed with him when he said that. I felt sort of guilty for doing exactly the same as some tourists do when traveling to Brazil and touring around our ‘favelas’. They might feel like ‘zoo’ attractions, where people come, watch, take pictures, and write about their experiences there. But at the same time, I think it is important to approach this topic and many time as possible willing to change their sad reality.

  • Kait Huziak
    Reply November 27, 2013

    Kait Huziak

    As incoherent as they may be, I do have to empathize with the man’s comments at the end. As a 3rd year student, I have lost track on how many countless DTES stories I have seen I have my peers do. Some have a genuine interest and concern with what is going on in the area while I feel that others do it because it’s easy completion marks. Some peers have mentioned that they have gotten interviews/photos with the permission of their subjects while others have not. And I can only imagine how many other students from other institutions are doing the exact same thing.
    So putting myself in the shoes of those in the DTES, it has to be aggrevating to notice outsiders constantly coming into the area while being gawked at simply for a story. Regardless of intentions, the lives of these people need to be dealt with in a sensitive manner and unfortunately, I feel at times it is disregarded. Bottom line: it’s a salt to the wound/kick them while they’re down kind of thing if it’s not done properly.
    However with all of that said, this is still a strong piece. Your POV and style of writing kept me captivated.

    • Avatar
      Reply December 6, 2013

      Marcel Chaves da Silva

      I do agree with him as well, and I do agree with you too. But I, particularly, decided to do this piece for many reasons. First because I’m extremely interested about this topic. I have done others things in Brazil too, where we have similar realities. Secondly, because for me this specific area shows a side of Vancouver that I haven’t heard before living here. And of course, because of my concerns and desire to change those people lives.

    • Avatar
      Reply December 6, 2013

      Cindy St-Laurent

      I understand what you are saying and I can agree simply on the fact that I have a sort of “connection” with some of the people down there. I used to volunteer in high school to bring clothing and we gave out food to them when we were down there about probably four times a year. I have never yet used my knowledge or people I know down there though for a story, even if I know of a few that would be really interesting. I think a part of me empathizes with the fact that they are looked at but lets face it in the western world we are looked at as well for different things, especially if you think of the hollywood lifestyle. We are constantly in their faces exposing them which is sad and isn’t right either. But in the end this was definitely a well written interesting piece that gave insight from someone not from the area. I think it’s brave to put yourself in the story and I’m intrigued by the idea.

  • Sheetal Reddy
    Reply November 29, 2013

    Sheetal Reddy

    The way you wrote this story was really effective; the narrative builds suspense. From your story I suspect that people are feeling frustrated over being noticed but seeing no change…perhaps they feel like involuntary participants of a public exhibition. Yet this story has value because although many of us have heard about DTES, not all have walked through it. Your story brings it home.

  • Isabela and Gabriela
    Reply December 6, 2013

    Isabela and Gabriela

    Really nice piece! Even though it is common to do stories like that, it is always worthy to remember people about this situation… what I think a lot of people always forget what’s around the corner…

  • Avatar
    Reply December 8, 2013

    Aasim Raza

    This my friend is the dark side of Vancouver. We hear about these developmental plans and many other economic plans to help revamp the economic structure of the city, but its yet to materialize.
    The government instead of helping these people give up drugs seems to be encouraging its use by building these safe houses where they provide sterilized injections to inject drugs.
    Now to top it all marijuana might just be legalized.
    Its really hard to understand this romance with drugs when we clearly need a clampdown on its usage.

  • Avatar
    Reply December 9, 2013

    Sarah Schuchard

    I really like how your piece showed kind of another side of the DTES stories that you sometimes see. By pointing out the exploitation of the people that live there was effective, and maybe it will make people think before they decide to “capture” the people that are in that situation.

  • Joao Vitor Correa
    Reply December 10, 2013

    Joao Vitor Correa

    Interesting, captivating, really well-balanced. I was 100% dragged. I haven’t had the opportunity to know DTES yet, but sure I’ll do before I leave.

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