Workers In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

Maclean's magazine has called Vancouver's Downtown Eastside "Canada's poorest postal code," which effectively takes away any human element from a long-troubled area. Poverty issues are compounded by a high percentage of residents who also struggle with drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness -- often a combination of all of these. Thanks, however, to the workers at organizations like the Portland Hotel Society (officially called PHS Community Services Society) and the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, people in this long-neglected area are receiving services that help them find the stability, dignity, and support they need in order to turn their lives around.

DERA began in 1973 to stop the threatened displacement of low-income residents from affordable, single-room occupancy hotels (SROs). Owners had been letting the properties fall into such disrepair that many were being shut down for health or fire code violations. As well, new condo developments and conversions were being introduced into the neighbourhood.

DERA also initiated the groundwork for the Portland Hotel Society, but the society later became funded by the B.C. Mortgage and Housing Corporation and the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. The Portland Hotel Society was named after Portland, Oregon, where Canadian activists were inspired by successful programs related to homelessness.

What some see as urban decay Skye Matheson sees as a workplace fraught with challenges but rewards as well, like when residents are able to get their lives back on track after years of instability and battling to overcome a myriad of personal demons.

Last year, Matheson, a member of Local 1004 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, escorted photographer Joshua Berson, CUPE Local 1004 president Mike Jackson, and national union communications representative Janet Szliske on a tour of the diverse Portland Hotel Society (PHS). Not only does the PHS manage nine hotels but it also has staff at shelters; a financial institution to serve those a traditional bank would shun; and a diner, the Potluck Cafe, which provides jobs for a few residents in recovery and cheap meals to the public.

Working for the Portland Hotel Society is not a job for everyone. Many of the workers are young and, Jackson says, there is a high turnover rate in shop stewards. People can easily get burned out. On the other side of the coin, there are workers who are motivated, even inspired, by the professions they work alongside and become doctors, nurses, and social workers themselves. The desire to help others burns bright and so is the drive to be able to do even more.

Joshabelle Josephson has nearly completed her Masters degree in social work. "It's because I am very social," she jokes about her reason for choosing that field. She works the night shift at the Rainier Hotel on Carrall Street, a residence for women at risk of homelessness, and in transition from addiction and mental health issues.

The routine followed at the start of each shift is pretty standard at every PHS residence hotel. The log book is checked to find out what has happened during the previous shift. A maintenance book indicates what needs fixing or has been repaired. Most of the buildings are old, with elevators prone to breaking down, or dodgy plumbing.

Around the clock, much of the work involves cleaning. On the night shift, Josephson washes floors and cleans common areas while the residents sleep. Another job involves "flipping" rooms, which means washing and sanitizing all the surfaces and changing the bedding so the rooms are ready for new "intakes."

During the day, doctors and their team -- usually a nurse and a therapist from the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority -- come around to handle any medical issues. In the evening, staff see that residents dealing with alcohol addiction get to their AA meetings; set alarms for people with appointments the next day, and dispense medications.

A resident might show up during the night to pick up belongings. "Often someone is not able to get through recovery and they have a relapse, so they have to go to a different shelter," Josephson says. "But we'll hold the room for them." The PHS hotels have a no-eviction policy, so a resident has a room to return to after getting out of treatment. There is great tolerance and compassion, along with the opportunity to access support programs.
"Here, nobody cares what you've done," Matheson explains. "They only judge you on whether you are a good person."

At the Rainier there are three staff members on duty, but one is assigned to cover breaks of workers at the other hotels during the night. "I find the work is very challenging, yet it's rewarding," says Josephson. "I offer people support and encouragement. With the heart that I have, I feel obliged to be there for them and teach them life skills in the real world."

As Josephson is nearing the end of her shift, Kristina Agosti is starting her day at the New Fountain Shelter on West Cordova. She's worked there since it opened in December 2008. It's one of the few shelters where people can bring in their pets and that can accommodate couples and families. Each of the 14 rooms contains a sink and two beds or cots, and an extra bed is added when needed.

At a shelter, many things can happen during the night. So, first thing, Agosti checks the log book. "People can get ill; or there's altercations, people acting psychotic; or someone reports a sore knee," says Agosti. After that, she prepares breakfast. "It's always oatmeal, whatever fruit is available, and a juice box," she explains. "Once, Skye made blueberry pancakes and everyone was thrilled."

Then she goes around to make sure everyone has woken up. "Some people need more help," she says. For instance, some might need assistance in getting dressed, or gathering their belongings. In the morning, pharmacists come in with methadone for those who require it. There are lockers to store belongings and a laundry service. "It's mostly for bedding but people can put in their own clothing," Agosti says. "They just might not get it back," since it's not a personal service. Whatever doesn't get claimed goes onto a pile of communal clothing where people can take what they need.

Agosti makes sure everyone has breakfast before they are out the door by nine a.m. If they are back early that evening, people can get the same bed again. Because of this policy, people often leave behind a few small personal items in their room, making it seem a little bit homey. Agosti admits the work can be very tiring, but, she adds: "I love it."

As Agosti begins her cleaning work at the shelter, Suzanne Wetzer sees the first clients arrive at Insite on East Hastings Street, the first legal supervised injection site in North America. Opened on September 21, 2003, it operates on a harm-reduction model: reducing the number of overdose fatalities, and helping combat the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C. It initially received funding from Health Canada and the B.C. Ministry of Health. The current government in Ottawa is fighting to have it shut down.

The day shift at Insite starts at 10 a.m. and goes until 8 or 9:30 in the evening. A night crew staffs the site until it closes at 4 a.m. Wetzer says clients must check in at the front desk, where "they give you their 'handle,'" an alias chosen by the client. One condition for the premises being exempt from the Controlled Drug and Substance Act is that Insite's impact must be thoroughly evaluated. This requires some means of identifying clients for study purposes, while protecting their anonymity.

Insite does not supply drugs but offers access to clean injection equipment, including syringes, alcohol and swabs. Condoms are also handed out to help prevent the spread of HIV. An average of 600 people pass through the doors each day, ranging from locals to people in three-piece suits, which Jackson was surprised to witness on his tour.

"We monitor the waiting room to make sure they don't inject there," explains Wetzer. "Then, when a space is available, we check them into a booth."

Behind a frosted glass door are 12 injection booths supervised by nurses. "Medical staff are present to provide First Aid if there is an overdose or wound as a result of injecting," says Wetzer. They also provide access to addiction treatment and mental health programs when such information is requested.

After injecting the drug they've brought with them (most use heroin, but morphine or cocaine is also used), clients can sit in the "Chill-out Lounge" until it is clear there are no complications such as an overdose. Meanwhile, staff clean and sanitize the seating booth in preparation for the next person coming in. Injection equipment is sterilized or put into bio-hazards pails for pick-up and

Besides cleaning and general maintenance, the Portland Hotel Society workers also assist the residents in numerous other ways. Matheson says there's no job title for what they do ("Maybe frontline worker?") since their work is part janitorial and part mental-health worker.

Workers receive training in how to handle potentially volatile situations. Non-violent conflict resolution training is given, along with learning CPR and how to handle dangerous materials like used needles.

They also ensure residents take medications as required, and set up appointments and make sure residents get there; arranging transportation, if necessary. Most services, such as dental and medical clinics, are within
walking distance.

The staff play an important role through their interaction with the residents. "We make sure every resident is seen every day and we talk to them, even if it's just in their rooms," Matheson says. No one is isolated.

"You need a psychiatrist to do the assessment but you also need someone to work with that person," says Matheson,who currently works at the Stanley Hotel/New Fountain Shelter, which was once two separate SROs."You need other human beings and healthy housing -- instead of throwing people into a place with no supports. This contributes to a continued loss of residence."

Prior to their arrival, most residents have an average of six to eight addresses in the past year. After moving into PHS housing, 40 per cent stay 10 years. The others stay between four to six years before they are capable of living in regular housing facilities and move out on their own, or with family.

The stability and access to community resources that these hotels provide make a world of difference. This is all part of the PHS mission, which is to provide sustainable housing for the hard-to-house population. "It's an amazing feeling to see how people, by getting a stable place to live, can then work on getting their life back on track," Matheson says.

Jackson says the tour was a real eye-opener for him. And this is true for many. Me, too. Seeing the Downtown Eastside from this totally different perspective puts the focus on the lives of people rather than on the activities that many find objectionable and the run-down buildings and filthy alleyways. With workers like Matheson, Agosti, Josephson, Wetzer, and the other people photographed, it is more than opening one's eyes, but, instead, learning to see with one's heart.

Carole Pearson is a Victoria-based freelance writer who specializes in labour, human rights and the environment.