BeeLee Lee, community protector activist
COME SEE THE “FREAKS” and scare your kids away from drugs. That’s what the operator of Scared Straight Tours said his bus tour of the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver could deliver. Residents in the neighbourhood were outraged. Their loud and very public refusal to be part of a “human zoo” ended the tours.
The Downtown Eastside in Vancouver is not a nice place. Wikipedia says it is: “the site of a complex set of social issues including disproportionately high levels of drug use, homelessness, poverty, crime, mental illness and sex work. But, that reality should entitle residents to help, not shame and ridicule, say local community activists like BeeLee Lee.
“I was shocked, disgusted, angry,” said BeeLee Lee, who lives in the Downtown Eastside. “I felt quite a bit of rage.”
The ‘worst drug-infested ghetto’
The Scared Straight Tour website promised “tours of the worst drug-infested ghetto in North America” and promised conversations with “local residents who won’t hesitate to share just how addiction has ruined their lives.”
In-person tours were offered at $350 per person, while a subscription to a virtual tour started at $89 per person. The price included two nights of hotel accommodations, meals and the tour. Families could pay $1,500 for a one-day tour, plus expenses for the tour operator.
“We are not monkeys in some zoo,” said another activist.
People who live in the Downtown Eastside do not want strangers taking photographs and video without permission. Tour buses that roll through the neighbourhood full of photo-snapping tourists are also not welcome, Lee said.
Residents in the neighbourhood are particularly vulnerable because many are homeless, or live in tiny single-room occupancy hotels, they have no choice but to live much of their lives out on the street in full public view.
‘A fire sort of erupts in us’
“There are lots of people in this community that love the community,” Lee said.
“Many people come down here every day to try to make people’s lives a little bit better. And when we see people exploiting or trying to make money or making fun of the suffering of the people in this community, then a fire sort of erupts in us and we protect our community.”
The tour website was abruptly shut down in early June after people who live and work in the Downtown Eastside, and drug policy advocates across Canada, raised strong concerns about the tour on social media.
The idea of leading groups of people through the Downtown Eastside on a safari to gawk at people who live in poverty and with addictions is both outrageous insult and injury, say activists. Like taking people out into the jungle to track down wild beasts.
For his part Pierre Morais, the owner/operator of the tour, wrote to The Tyee: “We remain proud of the work we have done over the past 20 years ... Unfortunately, we are no longer offering educational experiences for youth in the DTES.”
Too much stigma and shame
Tonya Robitaille is a mental health worker with youth in Grand Forks. She has ties to the Downtown Eastside and once struggled with addiction herself.
“I know that scaring youth is not a deterrent for them using drugs or any harmful substances,” Robitaille said.
She says most people don't turn to drugs just for the "fun of it". “Most of the people that are down there were traumatized as youths themselves," says Robitaille, "or they’re intergenerational trauma survivors. ... [T]o simplify it and just say that you’re going to end up on the stree if you do drugs is not accurate at all.”
Robitaille said stigma against drug users is already strong and the shame and feelings of worthlessness prevent people from getting the help they need.
“That’s what took me so long to get help when I was on the street,” said Robitaille. “To have people… looking at them like they’re freaks of society — that just creates so many barriers to people being able to ask for help.”
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