Last week 20 or so DTES residents, mostly from VANDU, met the VPD at Chapel Arts near Oppenheimer. Pivot arranged for us to talk about these topics in small groups: What would the DTES look like if the streets were safer? Tell a story about a time that someone did or said something that made you feel safer. What relationships do you have now that help make the streets safer and what tools could help?
The talk was passionate and a little bit tense. Residents at my tables talked mainly about what would make the DTES safer.
Only one person mentioned the drug scene as a problem. She said getting rid of drug dealers would make the DTES more safe for her as she walked around at night.
At the small tables, some said a “safe inhalation site” would make them safer. No probing happened to find out why. I think residents want the police to stop hassling residents for smoking crack, want to be indoors and possibly closer to services and help.
Mostly people talked about how the police themselves make residents feel unsafe. One person said “it would be safer if there was no legislation that will empower police to apprehend the homeless and put them in jail.”
Another resident felt targeted because he was poor and native. He said “I get ticketed for nothing by the cops. I’ve experienced hatred from the cops. I can’t pay them. I only have $62 a month to live on from welfare.”
A few people said they felt safe in the DTES. One said he actually felt safer here than in most other neighbourhoods: “As an Aboriginal man, I’m safer on Hastings here than on a skytrain platform in Burnaby.” He said there is more tolerance here and that there are pockets like this for others, like East Indians, around the region.
Another said “my confidence makes me feel safe. I can see and say things clearly and that helps me avoid trouble with the police.” He wished that other residents could have better health, maybe with special pills to make them able to understand what was happening and to not be so vulnerable.
The cops didn’t say much, but some tried hard to put residents at ease. One said he was a “reformed red neck” and he changed because of getting to know residents, “their stories and why they are trapped here”. He said changing outsider’s perception of the DTES is really important to improving the safety of the DTES. Unfortunately, the facilitator didn’t probe to ask why this would improve safety. One resident got upset at that point and left. I think the cop was trying to say that police treat people badly because the area has such a bad reputation.
At the end, we were asked what would make us come back. Residents applauded loudly when one person said they wanted to talk about locations for a safe inhalation site. And when someone said the police should admit that the community has never had a say over policing. And again, when someone said that “you’ve been chasing drug addicts up and down Hastings for the last 100 years, which is futile. We could talk about a place where we can all agree that drug selling could happen.”
The police said they would come back to sort out what’s acceptable and not acceptable down here in terms of behavior and help to build a common understanding. Do you think we should meet again? ~wp