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Downtown Eastside resident Teresa Baillie, left, and a staff member look out over the Downtown Eastside from the rooftop of the Tellier Tower in Vancouver on April 2, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Downtown Eastside resident Teresa Baillie, left, and a staff member look out over the Downtown Eastside from the rooftop of the Tellier Tower in Vancouver on April 2, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Residents say it’s community, not tragedy, that defines Downtown Eastside Add to ...

To outsiders, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside could be considered an intimidating place, where some back alleys are strewn with syringes and many residents struggle with addiction. But for a number of those who live there, the community is much like any dysfunctional family.

The neighbourhood has more than its fair share of kooky aunts, alcoholic uncles and wayward teens, yet some residents say there’s no community as loving and as misunderstood as Canada’s poorest postal code.

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Lisa Beketa has lived in the Downtown Eastside for five years. On a recent day, she was well dressed with pink lipstick, a hint of shimmering eyeshadow and stylishly-trimmed chestnut brown hair. She says she’s a heroin addict.

Beketa said she can’t fit in anywhere but the Downtown Eastside because people treat her like a leper.

“The reason why nobody wants to leave is because we’re not accepted anywhere,” Beketa said. “There are a lot of ugly stories down here but there are a lot of positive stories too. A lot of people (who) are addicts volunteer, get out there and help people.”

A helping hand is easy to find on these streets, where shopping carts laden with personal belongings and discarded treasures are the vehicle of choice, Beketa said.

Dennis Baker is one of those residents willing to help. At 64, he has received a scholarship to Kwantlen Polytechnic University and said he is considering going back to school to become an addictions counsellor.

“I love the people down here,” Baker said, his nicotine-stained moustache dancing as he speaks. “The Downtown Eastside can be heaven or hell. It’s what you make of it.”

In a neighbourhood where discarded trash and syringes line secluded alleyways, Baker chooses to see the positive.

“Everybody has a story,” he said. “A lot of people have really been dealt some bad cards. There are a lot of educated people down here, there are a lot of talented people ... musicians, artists, you name it.”

Baker said he’s had a rough go of things since his wife died of a brain aneurysm – one of life’s “bad cards.”

“It is embarrassing to be in a rut down here,” the former long-distance truck driver said of his past drug addiction.

He said ending up on the Downtown Eastside can often deal a deadly blow to addicts’ dreams for the future. As a recovering addict who’d been “straight for a while,” Baker lost his job when employers found out he had once used drugs. He said he’s also continually harassed by cops.

“Yes, I brought a lot of this on myself, I can understand that,” Baker said.

Nevertheless, he said the genuine care and support of people in the Downtown Eastside will get him back on his feet, so he’s one day able to “pay it forward.”

The Downtown Eastside is known to outsiders mainly through news stories and thumbnail descriptions – Canada’s poorest postal code, home of a safe-injection site, a hunting ground of serial killer Robert Pickton.

In 2006, the median household income was $13,691, compared with roughly $48,000 for Vancouver as a whole.

But the notion of the Downtown Eastside as massive blight to be cured is one Christopher Charles wants to debunk.

Born in Toronto and raised in Saskatchewan, Charles said the sense of community found in the Downtown Eastside is unparalleled.

“I could walk all the way from Victory Square to the Astoria (Hotel) and someone would greet me by name on every block. There’s (no other) place in Vancouver that can happen,” he said.

“When people come down here they drive down with all the windows rolled up and the doors locked. But if you really need help from your fellow man, you’re gonna receive it from someone down here and they’ll be a complete stranger.”

The dreadlocked man came to the area in 1993, with a cocaine and heroin addiction so bad his friends predicted he would “die with a needle in his arm.”

“I’d wake up and I’d look over to the North Shore Mountains and I’d think ... `Is this all your life has become? Is this all you’re meant to be?’ Thankfully there was a little nagging voice in my head that said, `No, it’s not, Christopher. No it’s not.“’ Charles said he’s finally content in life. He beat his drug addiction and moved out of the Downtown Eastside but returns every chance he can.

“Just walking down the street, a lot of people recognize and know me from the old days,” Charles said. “That inspires some hope within them ... they realize, ‘You know what? If he can do it, I can do it.’ ”

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