Last Sunday, my mother accompanied me on the Eastside Stride with the Union Gospel Mission. It was an event that took place during Homelessness Action Week and functioned as a combined public awareness and low-income employment program.
The Downtown Eastside is infamous for being ‘Canada’s poorest postal code.’ Any mention of it by the newspapers usually pertain to rampant mental illness, prostitution and drug addiction- it portrays DTES as a relatively hopeless area and has led to many of its residents becoming marginalized. The event took the form of hourly walking tours of the Downtown Eastside as means of introducing its diverse community and rich heritage to the larger world. The purpose of the Eastside Stride seem to be an endeavour to humanize the neighbourhood and mitigate the harmful perceptions associated with it.
Our tour was led by a DTES community member and a UGM outreach worker. We were taken around historical and cultural landmarks, many of which signified the history of the area, and were peppered with interesting facts about the community. Along with learning about the cycle of poverty which determines the poor conditions faced by individuals in poverty, we were educated on the history of the port and the Japanese community who became defunct after the introduction of internment camps during the second World War.
We saw the working locations of organizations that are active in the area such as Megaphone Magazine (a street paper, much like the UK’s Big Issue, which provides low-income people with a voice and a means to acquire income by vending the paper), Pivot Legal Society (a legal advocacy firm that deals primarily in discrimination, housing and poverty reduction) and Quest Food Exchange (a food exchange program which provides healthy and affordable food to marginalized individuals). It was refreshing to see the offices of non-profits that I’ve heard so much about and to become aware of those that I had missed.
Unfortunately, I was unable to finish the tour due to an emergency but, at the end of it, walkers had the chance to participate in the speakers corner to share their thoughts and feelings about what they had seen.
I’ve talked to a few people about my experience and some of them were a little put-off about being unable to go but UGM do plan on conducting tours next year during HAW 2013 and self-directed audio tours are still available on smartphones. It’s something I’ll definitely be partaking in soon- I don’t think I have the patience to wait another year to finish the tour.
The quality of a program like this is the fact that its accessible and speaks to the layperson who has heard of the DTES but doesn’t know much about it. Some of them think the tours should be taking place year-round because of the numbers of interested people who don’t have the time or resources to set up independent tours or try to research the issue themselves but I agree with UGM’s concern that this could be disruptive to the community. Monthly tours would be great though especially during the winter months when walkers can truly sense the physical and mental health implications of homelessness.
I love initiatives like the Eastside Stride and even Homelessness Action Week at large. Public awareness programs can be lost in the discourse when more emergent issues seem to require attention but they are vital to poverty-reduction if we wish to accomplish our goal of establishing supportive and inclusive communities.
Overall, I’m so thankful to UGM and our tour operators for giving me this opportunity and I’m sure everyone else who took the tour feel the same.