Tall and slender with flowing hair reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s, Bud Osborn was a distinctive figure on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. His people, as he put it in one of his poems, were “junkies winos hookers cripples crazies thieves welfare bums and homeless freaks” whom he saw as, above all, people entitled to life and dignity. On their behalf, Mr. Osborn fought for acceptance of the idea that addiction is an illness, not a crime.
As a young man, Mr. Osborn sank about as low as a human being could go, addicted to heroin and alcohol, shooting up, abandoning his family, living by stealing, begging, selling his blood. But around the time he turned 45, he entered a detox program in Vancouver, kicked his long-time addictions and began his second act. He became a community organizer, activist, award-winning poet and the voice of the marginalized, the outcast, the sick in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood.
When he read his poetry at bookstores, parks, or the Ovaltine Café, he seemed to fill people with hope. “When Bud read, the room went very quiet,” said Ann Livingston, his former partner.
He chronicled life on the mean streets of the Downtown Eastside (also known as DTES) in six books of passionate poetry, one of which, titled Keys to Kingdoms, won the $2,000 City of Vancouver Book Award in 1999.
“Universities and colleges have started to look at his work and realize its importance and impact,“ said Mariner Janes, a young poet who wrote his 2008 master’s thesis at Simon Fraser University about Mr. Osborn.
“He used poetry to articulate his experience,” said Brian Lam, publisher of Arsenal Pulp Press, which issued hundred block rock, another of Mr. Osborn’s poetry collections. “[DTES] was his home. He remained a prominent figure at protests and news scrums to make sure recovering addicts had a voice. He was recovered for his last 20 years. He put himself in the poetry; that was part of his recovery process.”
His greatest achievement was his leadership of the fight to open Vancouver’s controversial Insite, Canada’s first legal supervised injection site, which has steeply reduced the number of overdose deaths among the local addicts.
Mr. Osborn died in Vancouver of pneumonia on May 7 at the age of 66, and the following week 200 of his friends and fans held a tearful memorial on Hastings Street in front of Insite, marked by tributes, poetry and native drumming.
Walton Homer Osborn III was born in Battle Creek, Mich., on Aug. 4, 1947, to Patricia Osborn (née Barnes) and Walton Homer Osborn II, a Second World War bomber pilot who was shot down, captured by the Germans and interned as a prisoner of war.
Bud (an early nickname that stuck) spent his childhood in Toledo, Ohio; it was a chapter of his life marked by chaos and violence. Bud’s aunt killed her mother (Bud’s paternal grandmother) then turned the gun on herself.
His father worked as a reporter for The Toledo Blade, became an alcoholic and committed suicide in jail after an arrest when Bud was 3. He grew up in Toledo’s skid row with his mentally unstable and hard-drinking mother, who, like his father, had served in the U.S. military. Ms. Osborn picked up men and sometimes married them. “I think his mother was married seven times,” Ms. Livingston recalls. One of the husbands turned out to have been a murderer.
In his heartrending poem Four years old, Mr. Osborn recalled seeing his mother raped by a stranger whom she had brought home from a bar and being too small and weak to save her. At 15, he attempted suicide by swallowing Aspirin. At 35, he tried again, driving a car into a wall, after which he was sent to the Toledo Mental Health Centre. A psychiatrist there pronounced him “emotionally disturbed.”