DTES residents are people above addicts, mentally ill

Natasha Wahid’s column’s last instalment “When a Fire starts to burn” shows the exact disdain towards the Downtown Eastside that is responsible for it being stigmatized and avoided. It shows the same attitude that made us try to hide it from the world’s eyes in 2010.

When I read its description of “homeless people, junkies, mentally ill lurching about” on transit, I thought it was a tongue-in-cheek satire of the holier-than-thou attitude towards the neighbourhood. I waited to get to the point where this attitude was craftily torn down to reveal what the neighbourhood really is, where we get to the heart of the Downtown Eastside. But it never came.

Instead, those that realize there’s something drastically wrong with our city, specifically with the systemic issues that have created this neighbourhood, one being the attitude that creates and victimizes the “homeless people, junkies, and mentally ill,” are berated for “protest[ing] and crusad[ing] for the rights of Downtown Eastsiders without ever really seeing them.”

On the contrary, those that protest and crusade are not doing so for the rights of “Downtown Eastsiders,” but for the basic human rights that simply aren’t extended to the residents of the area. In fact, many residents are themselves crusading for their own rights.

The addictions that beat down the individuals living this life are nothing compared to the stigma of this column.

Organizations such as Pivot Legal Society work side by side with the people they are fighting for. The SROs, the police brutality, the horrifying poverty, the untreated mental illness, the survival sex work, the addictions that beat down the individuals living this life are nothing compared to the stigma placed upon them by people that share the attitudes of this column.

Her article enlightens us that the “Downtown Eastsiders” are humans too. But I’d even go so far as to deconstruct them into individuals: “Downtown Eastsiders” are families, students, seniors, artists, and poets. I lived off of East Hastings until recently; so to me, they’re also neighbours.

Rather than the “Downtown Eastsiders” feeling shame, those that look at individuals as “junkies” instead of people that have experienced traumas that we, in our high towers of privilege, cannot imagine: hearing these stories, of losing everybody they have ever loved, or being victimized by everyone they had trusted, I am inspired by the resilience of those that manage to drag themselves  from day-to-day, despite disability and daily victimization.

The Hope in the Shadows campaign, for which members of the area are given cameras to portray their community, gives a perfect example of what this neighbourhood is made of: yes, addicts, the mentally ill, the homeless, but also so much more.

The area is all of these people making what they can of life, the beauty in relationships, in families, and in art, often despite losing everything else; it is the Heart of the City festival that showcases the artistic vision of the neighbourhood’s residents; it is Carnegie Community Centre, whose steps really are the centre of community.

So, as touching as it is to hear that a presumed crack addict can have friends just like us clean and upstanding folk, as admirable as it is that the author is realizing that her own comfort and privilege are not shared by all, as much as I would love to read more about how the “junkies” are people, too.

I feel compelled to say that this column does not speak for all of “us,” that the residents of the Downtown Eastside do not need more stigmatization, and to entreat all that choose to write about the Downtown Eastside – or any marginalized area or group – to first be more versed with the topic, because you may be doing more harm than good.

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