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The people of the Downtown Eastside

Stories from the neighbourhood paint a different picture than the bleak headlines and grim statistics often associated with it

In a neighbourhood most often associated with drug use and poverty – and more recently an overdose crisis driven by fentanyl – it can be easy to overlook the stories of the people who make up the Downtown Eastside community.

The Globe and Mail spoke with six members of the area about life in a place most Canadians only hear about through bleak headlines and grim statistics.


GRACE CHEN

When Ms. Chen bought the Save on Meats diner in 2000, she neither spoke English nor knew anything about running a restaurant. But Ms. Chen had been a successful business owner in Beijing and wanted to keep busy after immigrating with her young daughter to Canada.

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"The customers taught me everything," Ms. Chen said. "They would say, 'That's scrambled. That's eggs over easy.' I didn't know what mayonnaise was. There were a lot of things I didn't know."

She ran the diner for 10 years, until the building was sold. In 2015, she took over the iconic Ovaltine Cafe down the street, where these days she can be seen cheerfully serving up milkshakes, hamburgers and greasy breakfasts for the neighbourhood's old-timers and young kids alike.

The diner is busiest the days after social-assistance cheques are distributed, when some patrons also pop in to repay the money she is owed: "Here's that $10 I owe you, Grace. Thank you."

Ms. Chen has observed the gradual change of the Downtown Eastside over the years, and plans to update the menu next year to accommodate an increasingly younger demographic.

"Mostly, they like hamburgers and breakfast," she said, "but they also like some fancy things like toast with avocado and poached eggs."


JANET CHARLIE

Ms. Charlie faced unspeakable tragedy when she lost two sons in two years, one to alcohol poisoning and one to a fentanyl-related overdose. In an effort to numb the pain, she drank until her own health suffered.

Her turnaround happened in an unassuming street market in the Downtown Eastside, where she found support, purpose and friendship.

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"The people at the market gave me a reason to wake up, something to look forward to," Ms. Charlie said. "They were there to support me."

She stopped drinking. Over four years and at two market locations, Ms. Charlie worked several jobs including cleaner, concessions and now volunteer supervisor.

The overdose death also spurred market manager and community advocate Sarah Blyth to erect a pop-up overdose prevention site in a tent at the back of the market in September, 2016 – three months before the provincial government opened more than 20 across the province.

The site eventually received government support and moved into a trailer. Earlier this month, the facility moved indoors to a space next door.

Earlier this year, when Ms. Charlie spoke of saving up for headstones for her two sons, Ms. Blyth helped facilitate a $3,000 donation from a member of Vancouver's skateboard community.

"I'm very grateful for what they did for me," Ms. Charlie said.

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CARLOS HERBST

When Mr. Herbst decided to leave Ensenada, Baja California, and a frenetic life of drinking and drug use that was beginning to destroy him, he headed north to Vancouver – far away, but still by the ocean.

Mr. Herbst had operated several businesses in the past, including a surf resort in Ensenada and a T-shirt printing business in Toronto. But in his single room that first year in Vancouver, he needed a smaller operation to get his hustle off the ground.

"I created a formula for lip balm and put it in some tubes," he said, recalling long days mixing essential oils over a $20 hot plate to come up with the right formula.

The owner and manager of the building he was staying in soon took interest and lent him money to get a natural skincare product off the ground, Mr. Herbst said. Sixteen years later, Mr. Herbst's Serf to Surf shop on East Hastings Street offers a combination of his various passions: Natural skincare products with tropical smells that evoke his surf days; and custom apparel, much of it emblazoned with original EASTVAN logos. He has hundreds of clients around the world.

He regularly gives away his skincare products to residents of the Downtown Eastside to help heal skin ailments associated with drug use and rough living. He recalls flagging down a man who walked by with bright red splotches all over his face and giving him a tin of healing balm.

"I thought a meth lab must have blown up in his face," Mr. Herbst said. "Turns out he had gotten bear sprayed. A month later, he comes in and says, 'I've got to give you a hug.'"


STEVE McKINLEY

Some of the best meals available to low-income residents are on the second floor of Vancouver's Carnegie Community Centre. There, hungry patrons can fill up on dishes such as roast beef with Yukon gold potatoes, wild salmon with organic brown rice and chicken with Mexican chili dry rub – all made from scratch, and for $2 or $3.

The directive to use fresh, healthy foods has long been in place at the cafeteria. But in recent years, food services co-ordinator Steve McKinley has helped elevate the food quality further, leading a shift toward more restaurant-style dishes.

"In the last few years, we've gotten super seasonal," he said. "We'll have arugula and young green beans because it's spring, for example. We've also done more contemporary things, like poke."

Diverse chefs on the team help shape ethnic menus: Indian, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Italian.

To keep prices low, the cafeteria relies on donations and has partnerships with local produce growers and food-recovery programs. It also enlists hundreds of volunteers.

Mr. McKinley, who used to work for a high-end catering company in Toronto, describes his work as both challenging and rewarding.

"I feel like I'm doing a super value-added job," he said. "And you really do get genuine appreciation back."


ROBERT DUMAS

Mr. Dumas had been a self-described "hardcore" drug user for 20 years, a dealer for around 18. He also committed petty crimes – thefts and such – to support his habit.

At the top of this year, he met community advocate Sarah Blyth, who offered him a position tidying up Pigeon Park for a modest weekly honorarium.

He says the drug game had grown more dangerous in recent years, both as a dealer and a user. He has lost five friends to overdoses in the past few months alone. He accepted Ms. Blyth's offer.

Mr. Dumas has stopped dealing and instead spends his time cleaning up the high-traffic park, several times a day, complementing the efforts of city crews. He has become somewhat of an ambassador to the park, which could be considered a living room, of sorts, for low-income locals.

"It makes me feel good," Mr. Dumas said. "I like it. I've noticed a lot of old people at the park now. You didn't see that before."

Ms. Blyth said Mr. Dumas, with help from the city, has created a welcoming space for community members.

"It's about giving people an alternative to selling dope, giving people opportunities to do something different," Ms. Blyth said.


RIKA UTO

Ms. Uto has worked at Vancouver's Carnegie Community Centre for 15 years, first as a volunteer, then an adult educator and now an arts programmer.

In her current role, Ms. Uto organizes activities such as poetry nights, music jams and art classes – all free – for the area's low-income residents. A jazz trombonist teaches every Tuesday, and the Carnegie Jazz Band performs at various events.

Ms. Uto considers these programs "gateway programs." The inherent value of such artistic initiatives is strengthened by their ability to draw in people who might never have been interested in the arts, welcoming them into a community.

"People come into the centre, maybe they've had a bad day outside, and they see some people in here doing some beading. They join, and for the next 30 minutes, they're able to focus on that. To me, that's the main value of a centre like this," she said.

"We never say that we do art therapy – we're a community centre – but all of these are ways in which people can feel better about themselves and build community."

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