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I could not help wondering what life would have been like if I had stayed back East, as I walked on Hastings and Main Street on a gray, rainy, rather typical Vancouver day. My reverie was broken by an ugly sight before me near Pigeon Park. A man and a woman were walking just in front of me and appeared to be having a casual conversation. Suddenly, without any warning sign to me or the woman, the man took a fast sideways kick to the woman’s face. I shall probably always remember the bewildered look on her face and the sight of her blood stained eye and dress. Of course such acts of violence are taking place all over the world, but in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver they occur so often in public rather than in private.
The next day I had arranged to meet a man who had requested my help. It was a simple request, “I heard you do advocacy and I need someone to go with me to the welfare office. I have an appointment there, and I am afraid that if I go alone that I will end up hitting a worker!” When I joined him at the office, he told the receptionist that he would like to bring someone in with him to the welfare worker’s office. When the welfare worker came out somewhat later than the appointment time, I was a little surprised by his attire and his attitude. I thought to myself, “Do they deliberately try to look tough to intimidate the clients?” He was wearing an open neck shirt, well-worn jeans, and heavy boots. He had a muscular build and was tall and surly.
“Well I see you are living common-law now” he growled. His client explained in a far more polite tone that I was there to help him. I fully understood why the man had asked for a witness, as I sensed that the welfare worker would have been far worse in attitude and behaviour if I was not there to accompany my friend.
Life in the Downtown Eastside is very often like this – tinged with violence from strangers, service providers, and the police. We suffer particularly from the cruelty of poverty. Living in poverty erodes one’s feeling of adequacy and diffuses one’s confidence and sense of self-worth. It is a struggle to maintain one’s dignity when one has to tolerate sneers and jeers from the public. The stereotype of poverty is an addicted person who lives in the Downtown Eastside. But the faces of poverty are diverse and can be found all over BC, which has the highest child poverty rate, the highest cost of housing, and the lowest minimum wage.
In particular, single parents endure crushing levels of poverty in this province. Fifty-six percent of lone parent families headed by women are poor, compared with 24% of those headed by men. One-third of BC welfare recipients are single-parent families, 88% headed by women. Single parents do our best to provide a good home for our children. If we are forced to accept housing that we do not find adequate for our needs, there is a tendency in many cases to blame ourselves and to feel guilty, although we are trying our best to care for our family.
These days, Vancouver City Council continues to support the real estate developers. Most recently, City Council made the decision to remove the neighbouring area of Chinatown from the Downtown Eastside planning process, and subsequently agreed to let developers build 12-15 storey buildings and condominiums in historic Chinatown. Remember that historic Chinatown is home to many low-income seniors, and is an area where Chinese stores flourish as a direct result of anti-immigrant sentiment which disallowed Chinese people from renting in other parts of Vancouver throughout the 20th century. This recent Vancouver City Council decision to allow condominium towers in Chinatown was made despite one thousand petitions signatures opposed to the plan and concerns raised by hundreds of Chinatown residents in City Council meetings. As a resident of Chinatown myself, I attended and spoke at one of these City Council meetings and voiced my opinion against this plan. Let it be clear to the powers-that-be that I have no intention of moving out or being kicked out from my home in Chinatown! (Well, unless I win the lottery maybe.)
And even though the very roof over our heads is constantly under threat by the greed of developers and the government who seek to control us, we still carry on with persistence. We support the homeless, victims of violence, those with addictions, and people suffering from mental health. We demonstrate, talk to politicians, send delegations to City Council, and raise awareness to the public.
Daily, we remind ourselves that our oppressors cannot take our power away. Our power can only be taken from us if we give it away. Not even involuntarily or unintentionally will we relinquish our power! We remember that “What does not kill us only makes us stronger.” The Twisted Sister’s Song “We’re Not Gonna Take It” often runs through my head. Yes, our earning capacity might not be up to many others in society, but we are not ruthless, we do not worship money, we keep our values, and we have a rich spirit. On the other hand, those who have a poverty of spirit number many, and among them you will find politicians, police officers, and big businesses. They think they are strong, but we believe we are stronger.
- Joan Morelli has resided in Canada for over thirty years and has raised her children on limited wages. She has been a tireless activist, actor, and writer in the Downtown Eastside for approximately two decades. As long as she breathes she truly believes that we must fight for housing and that housing is a universal right, and that no one should have to live and suffer in poverty.
This story is part of the Downtown Eastside Power of Women “In Our Own Voices” writing project. For more information and to read more stories, please visit http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/author/dtes-power-women-group