That’s “Downtown Eastside” — a tragic shorthand, an acronym that’s deserving (at the very least) of a full explanation. What’s happening? How did we get to the current situation? And why can’t we find our way out?

Karen Ward is a member of the “we”. She’s an ardent and eloquent activist who lives in the neighbourhood and provides emotional support to her vast personal network — a community which spans from Woodwards to Oppenheimer Park, from the foot of Main Street to City Hall. Karen is a former Board member of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), and former collective member of Gallery Gachet. Most notably, today she contributes to policy strategy as a volunteer advocate to both the BC Centre for Disease Control and as a spokesperson for her community to Vancouver city council and local media. Karen is unquestionably an urbanist, in thought and in action.

Give this episode — just 30 minutes of your life — a listen this holiday season. It’s a small opening into the life led by your neighbours, in a place that was once the beating heart of mainstream, middle-class Vancouver…and which today constitutes “7 or 8 blocks of chaos.”

Karen Ward on the DTES – “Abnormal in a Way That’s Distressingly Normal”
Price Talks

00:00 / 30:14


  1. The “War On Drugs” is, of course, front and center. But there never has been a war on drugs. There has been a “War On People” using specific drugs. There have been no raids on stores selling tobacco; no raids on liquor stores.
    Big thumbs up to Trudeau for legalizing cannabis. Bigger thumbs up to Portugal for legalizing all drugs. Severe penalties to dictators and their minions in the Phillipines, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, … there’s a long list of sanctimonious hypocritical, cruel bullies who have killed and destroyed families. They made money, careers, pensions. Holier-than-thou power trippers.
    In Canada, one member of the NDP got his career off the ground as a cop going after “drug gangs”.
    Emery was extradited to the US to sit in jail for 5 years for selling seeds. He paid taxes. Shame on Canada.
    Shouldn’t have happened. There needs to be a truth and reconciliation process to address this psychosis.

  2. Along with food and shelter, it doesn’t take a scientist to see that the preponderance of residents of the DTES are addicted to tobacco. That habit alone will eat up a welfare check.
    And, like us, they like to have an alcoholic drink.
    You might not think they deserve these luxuries.
    My dad used to brew beer in a big wooden barrel by the wood stove. Beer might be a misnomer – that brew was probably much higher proof.
    The thing is, it was dirt cheap to make. Dirt cheap and simple – something well within the skillset of DTES residents. Would they like to have a space to brew? This is a work program that would be off the charts popular. It would instiil pride. It is wrong to give poor people cash that they will use to buy beer from billion dollar corporations.
    With the guidance of a brewmaster, they could also bottle for sale. Would I buy DTES beer? In a heartbeat.
    Some of the cash received, hate to say it, should be earmarked for the purchase of tobacco. This vile toxic substance should be purchased in bulk at extremely low prices from the vile tobacco companies, not at full retail at stores. Ever see people picking up butts from the sidewalk to smoke? It’s a desperate addiction, and a degrading activity.

  3. A major factor for this ongoing situation is the disconnect between the majority in the Lower Mainland – who assert that the problems of DES denizens are mostly self-inflicted and thus readily dismissed – and activists there who assert those trapped in the cycle of poverty and addiction are blameless victims of society. How much responsibility does the average voter in Burnaby or White Rock feel they own for DES conditions? Not much, if my neighbours on the North Shore are any indication. And the worse it gets, the more reluctant the rest of the region will be to shoulder even small portions of that burden.

    There’s also no consensus on defining success, which makes policy change near impossible. Is the goal a stable, mixed income neighborhood – minus the open air drug markets and shambling junkies – or does the city owe drug users some type of sanctioned refuge? If policy changes tomorrow and in 5 or 10 years everything goes “perfectly”, what would the area look like? Is the goal zero addiction, managed addiction, or just housed addiction? Until there is meaningful (no referring to residents’ “dignity” or other ethereal claptrap) and regional consensus on this, nothing will change.

    1. The only consensus that marauding Burbanites can come to is that they want bigger faster roads tunnels and bridges; and cheaper gas.
      Goal. That word is apropos. Look at the Homeless Olympics. These people want a life beyond waiting in soup kitchen lines. One of the worst things about poverty is boredom.
      Addiction? We’re all addicted. Most of us manage to deal with it better.
      Malcolm Lowry – boozer. Bukowski – all manner of drugs. Bourdain – ditto, and then lunch with Obama.
      How can a society find the cash to build an Olympic Village, so that people in the prime of their lives can compete throwing a ball, or spear, or running … cycling in circles … good grief. People who are physically capable of building something useful who don’t lift a hammer.
      My favourite “Olympian” was Ben Johnson, a recent immigrant, gold medalist, and drug cheat, who got a phone call from the Prime Minister of the time saying how proud Canada was of the win. The same Prime Minister who got $300K in envelopes from arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber for “advice on a pasta business”. You can’t make this stuff up.
      Say what you will about the homeless, but they are not criminals. If they were, they could get free food and lodging in the pokey at a cost how many more times higher than a welfare check?
      Maybe they need to be cuter, like dogs, to get more benefits: housing, treats, grooming …

  4. There would be a bigger bang for the social housing buck if it was spent elsewhere.—- Working people need to live near employment opportunities but most DTES social housing residents are not the WORKING poor——–

  5. The Greeks have a saying: To work is hard. Not to work is harder.
    There is a sentiment amongst the Smug Minority (a book by Pierre Berton), that all the benighted have to do is pull up their socks and get to work.
    In truth, working or not, life is brutally competitive.
    Mr Berton, a self-made millionaire, told Gordon Sinclair that he was willing to pay for whomever to do whatever … poetry, navel-gazing … A guaranteed income.
    This made no sense to Mr Sinclair.
    There is an absurd belief that working is an absolute good, and not working a dissolute bad.
    Is it good to have a job building land mines? Does it make sense for someone to work an idiot job putting cash in billionaires’ pockets? Struggling to pay for transportation? Wasting their lives as economic vassals.
    80% of “work” could disappear and we would all be better off.
    Where should the social housing buck be spent?

    1. Close to job prospects for those likely to do so—— Where urban or town real estate is cheaper for those not likely to return to work—— Consider location of childrens schools

      1. Ye olde pack up the poor people and ship ‘em the hell out.
        And which lucky Town of Mayberry will be the recipient of these internally displaced?
        Maybe ship ‘em off to India. Welfare checks could stretch pretty far there.
        How about bussing them to West Van where they could look for handouts in front of a billionaire’s house. Big lots there too – lots of room for modular infill.

        1. Most of Metro Vancouvers working poor have already been shipped out to the suburbs where they have a long commute to their jobs——- Why is it O K for the working poor to be shipped out but not Ok for the for the non working poor– BC housing has a priority problem

          1. The working poor, wage slaves, economic vassals, absolutely should not be commuting unless they are directly reimbursed by their employers.
            This would incentivize employers to hire locally.
            It would be useful to ask a thousand SOV commuters what their job is. Odds are, most of those jobs could be performed by others living within walking distance.
            I used to commute to do an idiot job – that anyone could do – for a billionaire. After transportation expenses, there was zero cash left over. Could the billionaire have afforded to pay for my commute? Duh.
            If the billionaire had to pay for the commute, he would have hired locally.
            For most jobs, the number one qualification should be that you live close by. Unfortunately, people get so desperate for an income, they’ll drive to hell and back – five days a week. Do you want your tax dollars to help SOV commuters rushing to their jobs at Stuporstore, or Crappy Tire.
            That’s why the onus must be shifted to the employer.
            Maybe we need a new department: the Office of Rational Movement – that would oversee and facilitate matching jobs to where people live. If you are commuting any distance to work, you should be on the clock.

          2. i agree hire locally but the problem is that COV & UBC does not have enough housing for its workforce with the burbs having the opposite imbalance .. BC housing should give priority to people who work ( or likely to ) nearby

        2. Arnie—-No need for modular infill in front o f billionaires west van house——- there is 146 acres in west van that the bc assessment authority values at 4 million P I D 015-848-353. With $4 million eminent domain compensation It could be renamed proletariat ridge or ( methadrone ridge ) depending on who gets to live there. — sadly no bus service yet on the adjacent highway

          1. And what should the benighted poor do once they are perched high up the mountain? Go for a bike a ride?
            Funnily enough, there’s a DVD called: Carts of Darkness, which documents the speeding of homeless people, on shopping carts, down the hills of North Van. Their sneakers burn out pretty fast.
            Too bad they don’t have the privilege of wealth to take up snowboarding and maybe win gold, like “smoke a fatty for Rebagliatti” who, of course, did not partake of the herb and tested positive just from being near his buddies.

          2. the 146 acres is on the new squarmish highway above horseshoe bay.– with spectacular views. not on a mountain top . they would not have ask me twice if i would live there. How BC assessment authority values it @ $4 milion is beyond me

  6. Thank you for this and the other podcasts. I am currently working on refreshing the content for my UBC SCARP course on Housing and Community Planning Planning and the conversation between Karen and Colin gave me much I will reflect on.

    1. You’re welcome, and we appreciate the feedback. The conversations will continue – if there are particular perspectives, issues or guests you’d like to hear about/from, feel free to suggest. (We also hope to speak with Karen again.)

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