Its been a tough month for the troopers. I’m not talking about the police, but the street-level denizens of the DTES. I did a play around the turn of the century (which has since been turned into a Leacock award winning novel) called “City Boy in a Cowboy Town” by Mark Leiren-Young. In it the impoverished down-and-out inhabitants of the eponymous Cowboy Town are referred to as troopers. It kinda stuck for me, though no one ever understands what I am talking about. Not the police. The homeless.
I’m supposed to be writing something else at this very moment, but the sirens are far too regular outside right now. That’s a reality of this neighbourhood. The sirens at any time of night every night. Ditto chemically induced screaming, but that is often a different thing entirely. These past few weeks though have been rough.
First off it has been cold. Yeah, I know “rest-of-Canada” our notion of cold is laughable to you. But I grew up in the interior of BC. I know what sub forty weather is like. It has genuinely been cold here. Not sub forty. Not even sub fifteen. But as soon as it is sub zero people are freezing. You can be hypothermic in temperatures ten degrees above zero. And that is where our warm climate really gets the homeless when we get an extended cold snap. We have the homeless population we have in Vancouver in part because of the warm weather. The homeless gravitate here because it is easier to survive when you don’t have the temperature extremes of the prairie provinces. So there are more people out there to freeze, and they aren’t as prepared because they don’t usually have to be as prepared. They aren’t as prepared. The city isn’t as prepared. Its hard for either party to justify being prepared for something that happens so infrequently.
I ended up shin deep in a puddle of icy water this past week. It was awful. Fortunately I was going to be in a warm place for most of the day and would be home to dry socks in a few hours. I can barely imagine not having had that in my immediate future. The degree to which I can imagine it is uncomfortable, to say the least.
And then there is the fentanyl.
I figure its been about a year since I first heard of a fentanyl death – maybe eighteen months. A young couple in North Vancouver – both dead, child left behind. Last week there were nine fatal overdoses in one night. Not all overdoses are fentanyl, but it is very clear that fentanyl is a serious culprit. That really was a night where the sirens never really stopped. We hear stories in the news about the PTSD that emergency workers are experiencing right now – that they can literally save one person three times in a night.
I somewhat guiltily share this neighbourhood with these people. To some we are an evil – the gentrify-ers living in the buildings above their heads. To others we are a source. To some we are neighbours. I favour the last outlook, but I admit its complicated. Its not what I want to write about it tonight while a war for survival is fought in ear shot of where I sit.
I know these people. Not really well. But I know them. Some of them I know by name. Some I really like. A few really annoy me. Just like in any other social grouping. Except in this case its hard to judge my own motivations cleanly. The troopers who I like are easy to live with. They are also those who I am most likely to help when I can. The ones who annoy me are the ones who probably need help more, but in most cases I can least trust them to use my help productively. (That is code for “I can’t give them money because I am reasonably certain it will be used for drugs, not the food or shelter they claim it is for.”) I see a good number of them at least once a week and it makes me uncomfortable knowing that it inevitably that will end and more than likely it will end in some nearly anonymous tragedy that is already well into its middle act.
One day I will see each of them for the last time. It has happened before. The Push-up Guy. I gave him socks once when his feet were bare and mine were going to be warm at home soon enough. I don’t have much hope that he made it out alive. But he’s been gone for years now. Ditto the Bad-hair-cut. The homeless aren’t really known for style, but this one… holy smokes – bad hair-cut. But I can’t do it justice and I don’t have a picture and I never will, because she is gone. Odds aren’t good there is a happy ending there either. Abdul. There may be a good ending to that tale. He may really have been a kid from Somalia who just got in a tight spot and was having some trouble getting out. I never saw any sign that he was anything but hungry. I hope he made it somewhere where he can get on with life. But I’ll probably never know.
I do know in a few cases. Troopers whose lives got better. One was a woman who we occasionally took a hot meal to when we had extra. One day she disappeared. She was old enough that it didn’t have to be particularly tragic to have meant she had died. But it turned out it wasn’t. It took about two years. Then one day there she was calling to our daughter from across the street – happy to see her and say ‘hi’ and looking considerably healthier. I wasn’t there, but I’ve been told she had gained some well needed weight and was almost unrecognizable for all the right reasons. Another was the case of someone from back home whose life took a bad turn. Every time I saw them they were a little worse, a little further gone. Then came the day that they walked right past me, not only not aware that the person they were brushing past was someone from “back when” but not aware that there was another soul in arms reach at all. I assumed that was the last time I would see them. Then, a few years later, on Thanksgiving of all days, they were getting on the train I was getting off of, and a bit of hard living aside they looked as normal as anyone. I did not realize who it was. I was on the platform and the train was pulling away before I realized that my prediction that I would never seem them again was wrong and they had found a way free. These are the good stories.
But there will be lots of bad stories from this past month. It could take me months more before I realize that there are regulars who I don’t see any more and that the last time was before this brutal month. I can’t even catalogue all the troopers I keep an informal mental tally of. Off the top of my head I can’t even think if there is currently anyone out there whose actual name I know. There’s the Tatted Wheelchair guy. The Friendly 7-11 Lady. The Dignified Spinster. The Disarmingly Honest Schizophrenic. Caucasian Crazy-Eyes. Slick. Hammond (Not his real name… unless by fluke.) Siberia. The One Armed Painter. Piano Man. Throaty Francophone… come to think of it, I haven’t seen her in ages.
There. Right there. Throaty Francophone. Very annoying, that one. I’m relieved she is gone. But I want her to have got out in a good way. I have my doubts though. She didn’t seem to be trying to get out – like Abdul was. And she seemed too healthy to be catapulted out by hitting rock bottom. But rock bottom is different for everyone, right? And maybe she survived a bad overdose and that was all the wake-up call she needed. Or maybe she thought she was invincible and went too far, or was hooking and things went really really bad. I think we forget that that can still happen here in Vancouver. We got “the guy” so now no prostitutes are ever in any danger. Bull. Shit.
And any awareness we had for sex-workers in danger has been entirely overshadowed by the fentanyl crisis. I don’t even understand this. I admit it. What is the business model that includes selling a product that kills your customers at an alarming rate? Yes, heroin, crack, meth all do the same thing. But WAY less frequently. I really don’t follow how this is beneficial to the dealers cutting it into the supply. Unless I’m getting the metaphor completely wrong. There isn’t a war going on out in the streets of the DTES, the DTES is Birkenau and someone’s got it in their sick mind that fentanyl is the final solution. I feel a little dirty having even suggested it, but at least there is a logic there that makes some grotesque sense. If someone really wanted to clean up the “worst of the worst” of the Eastside, this would from a certain perspective help.
There’s the sirens again. Another trooper in trouble. Which of my neighbours this time? How long before I notice?
Take care out there. Good luck. May you find a good way out soon.