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.”
There were good times, too. “Bud was a leggy 6-foot-1 and he was a runner in high school, winning races,” said his half-sister, Leslie Ottavi, who was 10 years younger, and now lives in Cary, N.C. “He was a voracious reader, he loved to read; his father left behind a lot of books. He started to write poems in high school.” He discovered Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.
“I found out that there were poets whose lives were as messed up as mine,” he once said. “Reading poems helped me get through another hour, another night, another day.”
At 18 he entered Ohio Northern University, but left after two years. He married his college sweetheart, Judith, a girl from New York, but the marriage, which produced a son, Aeron, did not last.
Mr. Osborn lost touch with his son for 30 years but around the time he turned 50, he found Aeron living in Oregon. They saw each other on two occasions, but the reunion was not successful.
His sister says Mr. Osborn got into hard drugs after college, in New York, where he did odd jobs. In his poems he described scoring “smack” and selling his blood plasma to a lab, “5 dollars the first visit and 10 the second.”
He did not see heroin as a problem then, but as a solution. He later wrote that it gave him peace and was the only thing that helped him sleep.
In 1969, with the Vietnam War raging, Mr. Osborn got his draft notice and left for Toronto. His first collection of poems, Black Azure, was published there by Coach House Press in 1970.
Living hand to mouth in Toronto in a cheap hotel on Sherbourne Street, he met a woman he calls Marie in his prose-poem Gentrification, but who his friends later knew as Cuba Dwyer, a Cherokee from the hills of Oklahoma. In 1986, when he was sinking deeper into addiction, the couple moved to Vancouver and found their way to the Downtown Eastside.
Ms. Dwyer eventually became a chaplain and ministered to the AIDS-afflicted, before returning to the United States. Mr. Osborn was still a junkie and supported his habit through theft and scamming. He was eventually arrested for stealing books from the UBC bookstore.
“A judge told me I was of no use no use at all to society,” he wrote in his poem Amazingly Alive, recalling this episode:
but I got news
news for him
a society of bullshit
bullshit and greed
ain’t no damn use
ain’t no use to me
On another occasion, he was taken to St. Paul’s Hospital following a near-fatal drug overdose.
“One day I emerged, 45 years old, broke, homeless, in a detox centre, with nothing,” he told an interviewer. He decided he wanted to live, after all.
He credited his victory over heroin and alcohol to the support of a Roman Catholic priest who refused to give up on him. From then on, though born Presbyterian, he identified as a Roman Catholic. Once clean, he moved to a halfway house away from the Downtown Eastside. But he moved back after a year to a studio on Powell Street in the DTES, where he found what he called “a community of prophets.”
In the film Down Here, one of several documentaries in which he appeared, he said it was a privilege to read his poems to a crowd of poor people in a park rather than have his verses appear in a literary magazine where few would see them.
In 1997, when harm reduction was a new and misunderstood idea, he met Ann Livingston, a community organizer and mother on welfare with a disabled son. He was 49 and she was seven years younger. Ms. Livingston was part of a small group of activists who had opened an illegal supervised injection site, having read about such facilities in Spain and Switzerland. “It was called the Back Alley, and we cobbled together three tiny grants to rent a storefront and build some booths and provide clean needles, ” she recalled. “The cops visited regularly to check that no drugs were sold.“The walls of the facility were covered with poems by addicts, using the felt pens provided and someone got the idea of inviting Bud Osborn, the neighbourhood poet, to copy them down before the walls were repainted.”
The two had a decade-long relationship and became an effective duo in advocating for harm reduction. They founded the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), which now has 2,500 members.
HIV and hepatitis C infections were then raging in the neighbourhood, due to the large number of intravenous drug users sharing needles, and this became Mr. Osborn’s chief concern when he was appointed to the Vancouver Richmond Health Board in 1998. He pushed hard – sometimes presenting his motions in poem form – for the board to declare a public-health emergency.
He wanted sites such as Back Alley made legal, and went to Ottawa to lobby. He also made the case for supervised injection sites to Mayor Philip Owen, whom he managed to meet by going to his church in affluent Shaughnessy.
“There were at least 200 people dying annually on the Downtown Eastside and this went on year after year,” Ms. Livingston recalls. Mr. Osborn and Ms. Livingston organized the installation in 1997 of 1,000 white-painted crosses in Oppenheimer Park to remember those who had died. Mr. Osborn read an inspirational poem 1,000 Crosses in Oppenheimer Park. A few years later, in 2000, they repeated the event with 2,000 crosses.
“Those were critical steps in getting governments to respond,” recalled Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, a friend of Mr. Osborn. “This was before social media – the 1,000 crosses, and 2,000 crosses. Those were significant events in the life of the city. The banner they unfurled said ‘The killing fields – federal action now.’”
With the election as mayor of former coroner Larry Campbell in 2002, the campaign for Insite picked up speed.
Ultimately, Coastal Health, the regional health authority, applied to open the facility. “Health Canada designated it as a research project; it was Health Minister Anne McLellan who approved $2-million for research,” Mr. MacPherson said.
“Bud inspired them and he pushed them; he was not to be taken lightly. He was very much about citizenship for all. He was reacting to a notion that some people didn’t count. He was trying to bring people into citizenship. That is why Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users was very important.”
After the 2003 opening of Insite, which, naturally, he celebrated by writing a poem, Mr. Osborn turned his energies to opposing gentrification of the grimy neighbourhood where he had found a reason to live. He organized against the redevelopment of the old Woodward’s building at West Cordova and Hastings Streets into expensive apartments. And he picketed last year when the upscale Asian restaurant Pidgin opened near his home. He knew there would be no room for his people in a gentrified high-rent Downtown Eastside.
Bud Osborn leaves his sister Leslie; son, Aeron; and two grandchildren he never met.
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