On Homelessness in Vancouver

This blogging business is harder than I thought! It’s been a month since my last post and more since I wrote anything new. I’ve had a lot on over the last few weeks, so writing has taken a bit of a backseat, but this week it is time to write again and on something I promised ages ago, my observations on the homeless problem in Vancouver. But before I get to that, here’s a brief update on what else I have been up to.

Brief Update

Since I last wrote I have been busy conducting research interviews and have now completed 12 interviews with young men at the university, given the small nature of this study, this means I now need to only run a small focus group to finish data collection. Next it’s transcription, coding, analysis, writing up, and finally publications. Alongside this I’ve been busy editing book chapters for my forthcoming book on research relationships, giving guest lectures on different modules at SFU and attending a screening and discussion of the film The Mask You Live In which looks at contemporary masculinities. This was organised by students from the Gender, Sexualities and Women’s student department and was very well run and it was really pleasing to see so many students engaging with this topic. I have written about the film elsewhere on the Beyond Male Role Models blog if you want to know more, check it out. There was also my North American launch of From Labouring to Learning [more on that next week] and two visits from people in the UK, which included Ice Hockey and Football matches, concerts, museum trips, mountain walks on Vancouver’s Grouse Mountain, and cycling around Stanley Park.

Observations on the homeless situation

I love this city and it has to be one of the most picturesque places I have ever had the pleasure to spend any length of time in. For me it seems to have it all, the beautiful mountains, lakes and beaches that shape the city on all sides, shops, bars, restaurants, lots of sporting and cultural events,  it’s easy to get around on public transport and for the most part, a friendly diverse population. With a population of around 2.4 million in the greater Vancouver area the crime rate is also quite low for a city this size. However, in a country that prides itself on its liberal attitudes and healthy lifestyles, looking out for one another and being friendly, polite and caring, the seen homelessness (hidden homelessness is another issues which I don’t have time to go into) in the Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver is a big issue and something which I really struggle to deal with on a personal level.

The Downtown Eastside is the poorest neighbourhood in Canada and others have written in far more detail about this subjects than me, and I would direct you to a few interesting websites and articles which explain the background to the problems elegantly and others which are not so great, but they do have some good films summarising the issues and other which give people’s opinions on it, to learn more. The area is a short distance from what is now the commercial hub of the city, and something which I imagine many people choose to ignore. This ghetto, or skid row fascinates me as it seems to just appear out of the tourist landscape at one end of East Hastings Street and disappear a few blocks away. In a city with the natural beauty that surrounds it, a sort of almost invisible demarcation zone exists here. A friend of mine (who visited me from the UK) arrived in the city by train late at night and took a cab through the area to his hotel. The next day when we met up, he described the area to me as something out of the Night of the Living Dead film and was quite shocked by it all. While it still has the power to really shock me, over my time here I have begun to think about the situation in a different way, and using my sociological and ethnographic skills, I have noted the following which I want to share about the situation to help me understand it better. While I don’t have answers to these complex problems, what I have noticed in my observations, and which I want to cover here, is that to talk of the homeless population as one generic group, a bunch of drug addicts, beggars and layabout lowlifes, is greatly misleading and overshadows many issues they face. This stigmatization also conveniently overlooks how some of the practices that the homeless engage in are similar to the ‘normal’ day to day practices of neo-liberal capitalism. I want to make clear again that these are not ‘research findings’ or part of any funded project I am conducting, for right or wrong, these are just my own raw observations of what I have witnessed and my own form of amateur analysis.

1 Panhandlers

Begging for money on the streets, or panhandling occurs frequently across the city. As most of the money to be made is in the commercial and tourist areas of the city, it makes sense that those who are living on the streets, or in temporary accommodation, would move to these areas to ‘work’ with the downtown eastside acting as more of a base. As I have walked around over the past three months, it is hard to escape the amount of people sitting on street corners with pieces of cardboard with messages written on them requesting money to buy food, shelter or simply ‘weed’. A lot of these signs are simple scrawls on bare cardboard, but others are really artistic and covered in images and drawings and look like they have taken a lot of time, effort and energy to have been produced. The prime spots for panhandling would seem to be where people have to stop to cross at crossings or around transport hubs and would appear to be where more than one panhandler can sit at any one time. I can’t begin to imagine how hard and boring it must be to sit on a street corner, hour after hour and to have people constantly looking the other way and being ignored. Rather than stigmatizing these people further, I have started to see this as a form of ‘graft’, especially when it is cold and wet and there is no guarantee of making any money. While some people write signs or shake cups, another way of ‘grafting’ on the street comes through the recycling schemes that operate within the city. Many types of bottles and cans often have a small ‘return it’ deposit on them which is paid out at recycling centres. I’ve seen many people walking around riffling through bins in the city, or catching buses to the more suburban areas and going through household recycling in large bags and carts to take them to recycling centres in order to receive these deposits. It strikes me that aren’t both of these forms of panhandling just other forms of competitive capitalism and examples of entrepreneurial businesses?

2 Age and gender differences

There are huge differences in ages of the people that seem to live on the streets and the areas they spend their time in. On Granville Street, which is home to the cities nightlife, there are lots of bars and club venues, and here is where numerous groups of younger people under what I estimate to be 25, tend to hang out. In the summer when I walked through the street, there seemed to be an almost festival like atmosphere at times, with strong smells of marijuana in the air and music being played. Something which has decreased since the weather has turned. I also assume that the more time someone spends on the street, the more dangerous and difficult it becomes. These young people seem like any other group of young people I have spent time with for research purposes, and maybe this is why it disturbs me to seem them in this situation more than the older street ‘pros’ that tend to hang around near transport hubs and who stay more on East Hastings street. The older homeless also seem to be very much alone, whereas the younger people group together. In terms of gender, there are also a lot more men than women on the streets and I want to share one incident in particular that made me realise just how vulnerable young women in this situation are.

I has just arrived at a busy bus stop near a traffic intersection with four lanes of traffic on each side of a large crossroads. Under the traffic lights, which were high above the road on a big yellow platform, I noticed a young white woman sitting with a cardboard sign. She looked to be aged around 18, but could have been younger, with long blonde hair, which partially covered her face and round dark glasses. She was dressed in a dark hooded jumper, a frayed T-Shirt dangling down around her waist, black jeans and black skater trainers. As the lights changed from green to red, she stood up, and walk up the line of stationary traffic, holding her sign in front of her, and puffing on a cigarette, before slowly turning, and walking back towards her starting spot, under the lights as they again changed and the traffic began to move off. I noticed her sign read, ‘Any Little Helps J’. As I was waiting for my bus on the other side of the street, I spent 15 minutes watching this young women repeat this action over and over. In the time I stood there watching, nobody opened a window to offer any money and thankfully, nobody stopped to drag her into a vehicle. What was also surprising for me was that at one point a police car was stationary at the lights, but did not intervene in this practice or ask this young woman if she needed assistance.

Through some brief reports I have read on these issues, and which fits in with some of my own work is that many of the young people who are homeless (those on the streets or those in temporary accommodation) have recently left the care system and come from family backgrounds of abuse or neglect.

  1. Serious Mental Health Issues

Aside from the panhandling and the age and gender observations I have come across while I have been here, I have also been struck with how many people on the streets appear to suffer from all sorts of mental health issues and which are usually just ignored by passers-by. On multiple occasions I have witnessed people screaming and shouting and wandering through traffic, people hitting themselves on their heads as they walk about the city, talking to themselves, and people shouting at bus drivers and passengers on buses. I am sure this happens all over the world and that I must have come across these behaviours before in London and other cities I have lived in, but it really does seem to be more noticeable here, maybe because it is a painful reminder that not everyone is experiences the joys of this city. From what I have read on the housing and mental health crisis, this is a long standing problem going back many years, and shows little sign of improving, with major links to drug and alcohol abuse. Another report, this time by the mental health commission and Simon Fraser University draws on qualitative research to illustrate in much more detail the realities off the situation and is well worth a read.

I’m not really sure if this blog post has achieved anything more than a brief description of the situation, it certainly won’t change the problem, but it is something which I feel needs to be conveyed to others, and this is my way of adding to this debate.

Next week I’ll post a report and account of the launch of From Labouring to Learning.

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