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Downtown's Denizens

You can't fix a place if you don't understand its people: Why did they come here, from as far off as Montreal or Regina, and why do they stay? From painters to prostitutes, Mark Hume listened to their stories. With portraits by John Lehmann

From Saturday's Globe and Mail


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Tamara L., from Montreal

He's afraid to stay in the Downtown Eastside at night. "I'd lose everything if I slept down here," he says. "I got four canes stolen from me last year. They will steal anything."

But in the daytime you can find the 48-year-old rocking back and forth in the cold beside a grey metal dumpster in a back alley near Victory Square, where a tall, granite obelisk honours Canada's war dead.

The name he gives is Tamara L. He grew up in a military family in Montreal's Outremont district, on the north side of the mountain. But he has no fond memories of the time. "My parents were drunks. You know, alkies, they snap, eh — always hot under the collar. They took it out on me."

When he was 14, he ran away from home, leaving behind his parents and his only sibling, a younger sister, who grew up to become a social worker. "There was no support for us then," he says. "There were all these problems at home and I couldn't talk to anyone. It may not have been the best decision, but it was the best one at the time for me."

He hitchhiked west, delivering flyers and working in travelling fairs. He settled in Edmonton and then Calgary before drifting on to Vancouver in 1984. "I was just looking around. Tired of the prairie winters."

He ended up in the Downtown Eastside because it was the only place he could afford. Until four years ago, he had a cheap room. Then the rent went up. Now, he curls up in the open in a sleeping bag he carries in a small backpack — and hopes for the best. "I've had people kick me, spit on me. Ordinary people do that. If they see you sleeping on the ground in a bag, they think you're not human."

Mr. L. lives on welfare. He said he used to sell blood to the Red Cross until he got hepatitis C — the disease that left him partly crippled. Leaning on his cane, he casts glances down the alley. Nearby, some friends are smoking crack, huddled in an alcove.

"Six up," he hisses to them. Moments later, a police car cruises past without slowing.

"My drug of choice is more," he says — more of whatever is available.

Asked if he is trapped on the Eastside because of drugs, he says: "No. Poverty did that. We live in a shithole. I mean, who wouldn't want to get high down here?"

Joe Mangatal, from Saskatoon

On her first morning in Canada, Josette Mangatal woke up before anyone else in the family and looked out at what seemed a perfect world. The yard of their new home in Saskatoon was cloaked in a pristine white blanket and the seven-year-old girl ran out, clad in T-shirt and light pants, as if she were on a sandy beach back in Trinidad.

"I got halfway across the yard before I realized, 'This stuff is cold,'" Ms. Mangatal, now 46 and known as Joe, remembers as she sips tea in a bleak little café on East Hastings Street in Vancouver, near where she lives.

It turned out that many things in her life in Canada would be shockingly different than she expected.

Shuffling along East Hastings, buried in a big, green winter parka, Ms. Mangatal looks like any other lost soul. But underneath the oversized coat is a slight woman with delicate hands whose voyage through mental illness led her to the Downtown Eastside.

Her family came to Canada as political refugees, and Ms. Mangatal had a happy childhood. She had three brothers and a sister, and graduated from the Saskatchewan Technical Institute in Moose Jaw as a systems analyst. By her early 20s, she was married and had two young children. Then one day she woke up in jail.

"I ended up having the first delusion then," she says quietly, stirring her tea. "I believed the police were chopping up my relatives and throwing buckets of their remains into my cell. The funny part is I don't remember how I ended up in jail. But I do remember the hallucination."

She smiles tentatively and looks over her glasses to see if she is being judged. "They sedated me — stuck me with needles every three hours because I was so violent." She was diagnosed as schizophrenic, with bipolar disorder. From then on, periods of normalcy were interspersed with sudden, violent episodes.

She woke once to find an RCMP officer waiting. "Why did you burn down your house, trash a convenience store and assault one of my officers?" he asked.

"I said to him, 'I'm dead, right? And you're my nightmare.'"

But he was real. Her rampage could have killed her family. "I told myself, 'That's it, you have to euthanize yourself. You are a monster. It's time to die.'" She was 24.

One day, she bought a Greyhound bus ticket and vanished on her family without saying goodbye. She got off in Vancouver with $2 in her pocket. She wandered the streets and slept on church pews. At last, a United Church minister heard her playing the chapel piano and offered help — clothes to wear, newspapers to read and money for food. He got her a job and she moved into a Downtown Eastside hotel.

On Christmas Eve, she went to a pay phone and called home. But her attempt to reunite her family failed when the hallucinations returned. They got her into the psychiatric unit at the University of British Columbia Hospital. Eventually she was assigned to a new downtown housing facility for the mentally ill, where she now lives. She takes 23 pills a day to control her illness, but she still has symptoms.

"One per cent of mentally ill people are dangerous," she says, "and I fall in that category."

Robert Bonner, from Regina

He grew up in a ramshackle home in Regina with an alcoholic mother who once tried to stab him and a loving but drunken father who took him to live in skid-road hotels.

With his long black hair streaked with silver, a rabbit-bone neck choker and fringed, deerskin jacket, Robert Bonner today looks like the "proud Indian" he says he is. It wasn't always that way. There was a time, before he connected with his aboriginal roots, when he was angry, often drunk and addicted to drugs.

As a teenager, he says, he was rejected by whites because of his distinct Cree appearance but spurned by many natives because he didn't have a reserve accent. Today, Mr. Bonner, 58, is an iconic figure in the Downtown Eastside — this year's cover model for Hope in Shadows, an acclaimed annual calendar of photos by local residents. Strangers walk up to shake his hand. But few know his story.

"I was apprehended when I was 8, put in foster care and made a ward of the government," he says. "I used to come home from school at lunchtime and my job was to go out to the corner store and buy bottles of vanilla," for the alcohol content. "If I came back empty-handed, I'd get beaten."

He remembers watching his mother wring out shoe polish in a sock until the booze oozed from it. One day, she accidentally set the house on fire. No one was injured, but the firefighters found her vanilla bottles and called social services.

Mr. Bonner was placed with one foster family and his sister with another. His white foster parents beat him. Eventually he ran away to live with his dad in a residential hotel.

"One thing led to another," he said. "I was 12 when I first went to prison." He later got seven years for robbery.

He came to Vancouver in about 1980, dealing drugs and slinging beer in an Eastside bar. In 1992, his father died. In mourning, he went on a two-week binge. But he ended up taking stock in a park an hour east of Vancouver, near Chilliwack.

"One day, out at Cultus Lake, I sat on the wharf all alone. I asked myself, 'What am I going to do? Carry on like I am and die, or choose to live?'" A friend helped get him into detox.

Today, Mr. Bonner counsels teens at the Urban Native Youth Association. "I've gone 17 years without drugs or alcohol," he says.

In a spiritual ceremony this spring, he will push a wheelbarrow full of burning sweetgrass through the streets. Every so often, he'll stop — to waft purifying smoke over anyone who comes near.

Dawn Sam, from Fort St. James, B.C.

As a young girl in the small, largely aboriginal, northern B.C. community of Fort St. James, Dawn Sam used to walk past Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Church and look out over the vivid blue waters of Stuart Lake.

Today, Ms. Sam, 37, walks the streets of the Downtown Eastside, prostituting herself not far from Oppenheimer Park, where serial killer Robert Pickton found most of his victims. She turns tricks for as little as $20.

"My pimp is my crack pipe," she says. "That is the only thing I sell my ass for. Sad but true."

Ms. Sam's father and mother split up when she was 4. She and her sister and brother stayed in Fort St. James with their mother, who used to go on drinking binges to the Downtown Eastside. When Ms. Sam was 7, her mother brought her there to live.

"I used to wait in the Dodson Hotel, in the lobby, while she drank in the bar," she says.

That year, one of her mother's boyfriends sexually abused her. She remembers the fear of being lifted from her bed in the middle of the night. When she was 11, social services placed her with a family back in Fort St. James. But she started running away to Prince George, where she turned her first trick. She got picked up outside a video arcade and was paid $20. She was 12 years old.

"I thought that was so cool because it was so easy to make money," she said.

When she was 13, a friend injected her with cocaine. She loved it, and it became her life.

"When you fix cocaine, it's an intense rush. Boom. When you smoke it, it's more a tweaking kind of high," she says.

"I believe in ghosts, spirits, signs. Every time I do a fix, I hear girls screaming. People getting killed. All those people killed down here aren't at rest."

She began working as a prostitute in Vancouver when she was 18. She added heroin to her addictions and then became pregnant. Her son was born addicted. Six months later, she called social services and told them she couldn't care for him.

"It's the smartest thing I ever did."

Later, she settled down with an older man who was a regular customer. She gave up prostitution, moved into his house and two years later they had a daughter. She still struggled with drugs, but her life stabilized.

"We had a beautiful home," she says.

But he died of cancer in 2005, and his family told her the will left her nothing. Her life fell apart again. She went back to drugs, back to prostitution and back to the Downtown Eastside. She lost custody of her daughter.

The tough street hooker stops talking and begins to cry. "I've been out here ever since."

She adds, "Living on the street — I really want to get off it. I had good years with my daughter. There's nothing better than waking up and smelling your kid. Playing hide and seek. I miss being a mom."

Barry Lawrie, from Surrey

As a young boy growing up in Surrey, Barry Lawrie seemed destined for better things. He had a loving mother and a sweet, angelic face. He was athletic and fearless, the type that should have become captain of the football team.

Instead, in his teens, Mr. Lawrie veered into a life of crime — a long spiral that would take him to the streets of the Downtown Eastside. First he became addicted to the adrenaline of burglar alarms. Now he is addicted to crack, and generally beaten up by life.

Over breakfast at an aging diner on East Hastings called the Ovaltine Café, Mr. Lawrie, now 40, opens his shirt to show his scars — gunshot entry and exit wounds, knife stabs and a machete slash that, he says, "cut my arm to the bone."

"I saw two friends shot," he adds, stopping his fork over a half-eaten omelette. "One was shot in the face while he was talking to me." At the thought, he starts to shake — ketchup runs down the knife blade onto his fist. Then he jerks his head, surfaces from the darkness and starts to talk again.

Mr. Lawrie grew up middle-class — "the house on the block with the Corvette, the camper, everything." But after a broken marriage, his mom got involved with an abusive man. What Mr. Lawrie saw then filled him with anger. He says his mother was "an angel" who "was always there for me," and he had supportive teachers. But he ignored them all.

At 12, he fell in with a friend whose parents got him to crawl in a broken window at a liquor store, and pull out a case of whisky. It was a thrill. When he was 15, he did his first armed robbery.

"I knew I had to do it because I said I'd do it," he says. He walked into a gas station, pulled out a handgun he had already stolen and pointed it at the clerk's head, saying: "I want a Players Light — and all the fucking money you have in the till."

He topped it off by demanding the clerk's own wallet, and walked out with $300 and high on power. "I liked the idea of being a gangster."

Alone among his mother's five children (he has one sister and three brothers), Mr. Lawrie chose crime. He made a lot of money in his 20s and 30s; he had Robert Bateman prints on his walls. But it was a mean life, he admits.

"I shot somebody and crushed somebody's fingers with a ball-peen hammer. It was over money. Collecting money." He gives a dejected shrug. "I wanted to be a freak. I wanted to be feared."

He got arrested repeatedly and did time. He got married, had a daughter and tried to go straight as a bodyguard and a bouncer at clubs. But his record grew: assault, aggravated assault, attempted murder.

Then a girlfriend gave him crack during sex and soon that was all he cared about. "Instead of sex, I'd have crack. Instead of going to the gym, I'd have crack."

But no one trusts an addict in gangland. "They turn away from you," he says. "You walk in a room and all the eyes go down. … So the drugs become your friends."

In January of 2003, six police officers picked up Mr. Lawrie and two other men, took them to Stanley Park and beat them. Two of the officers were later dismissed and four disciplined. Mr. Lawrie was targeted because he was seen as a face of crime in the Downtown Eastside.

Today, he survives by peddling crack on the street. Street dealers here are given designated spots by their suppliers, who warn them that if they abandon their posts, they will get knifed — or set on fire. Mr. Lawrie stays in cheap rooms and lives one drug shift to the next.

"I'm so ashamed of myself," he says, saying that he wants to get into detox. He wants to escape.

"The Downtown Eastside is the toughest maximum-security prison I've ever been in. It's got giant walls. They close in. It suffocates me."

James Cummings, from Vancouver

The last place James Cummings would have expected to realize his lifelong dream of being an artist would be in a in a small rented room on the Downtown Eastside, overlooking Oppenheimer Park.

He was born in Vancouver General Hospital in 1943 and grew up with three brothers in a solid, working-class family, first in Port Moody, and then in East Vancouver. Restless, though, he dropped out of school when he was 15 and became a deckhand on tugs in Vancouver Harbour.

Later, he drifted east, first to Montreal to work on grain ships in the St. Lawrence and on the Great Lakes, and then to New York City to crew freighters. He was a 19-year-old merchant seaman when he visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, curious to see what real painters did.

"It scared the hell out of me," says Mr. Cummings, now 66. "Here I am with this little sketch pad I carried around, looking at Rembrandt."

It shook his confidence, but it didn't kill his art aspirations. He continued to sketch as he sailed the world's oceans as a merchant mariner, for so long that he was reluctant to return to shore.

"In this odd way, I felt I didn't want to go back to the complexities of life."

Life on land had its difficulties. He married and had a son, but after three years he and his wife divorced and he never tried again. In 1987, his older brother, Bob Cummings, a founder of Greenpeace and a well-known Vancouver journalist, committed suicide.

But eventually he left the sea, moving back to Montreal, Toronto and then British Columbia to work construction and lumber-industry jobs. And finally he enrolled at the Kootenay School of Art in Nelson, B.C., and graduated with an honours degree in fine arts.

Of course, artistic work is hard to come by, so he ended up back in construction and forestry. But finally he returned to Vancouver and, never having saved any money, took a room in the only place he could afford, the Downtown Eastside.

"That's where poor people end up," he says.

A bout of tuberculosis left him too weak to work. His only income is his old-age pension. And how does he like the neighbourhood? "I don't like the poverty. I don't like the despair," he says. "The drug dealers are the worst."

Here, however, is where he found his artistic opportunity. In 2003, the Carnegie Centre, a former library that now offers a wide range of services and calls itself "the Downtown Eastside's living room," celebrated its 100th anniversary. Mr. Cummings offered to do a painting depicting the past century. That's when his obsession began.

That painting evolved into 50 different panels, each one illustrating an event in the history of the community. Over the past six years, Mr. Cummings has lost track of the hours he has painted, but the work is nearly done. To save money for paints, he got free meals from the Sisters of Atonement. All put together, the painting is more than twice the size of his own 100-square-foot room.

The work is no Rembrandt, but in its own folksy way, it depicts a century of turmoil and struggle in the Downtown Eastside. Instead of Peter Denying Christ or Parable of the Rich Man, he has painted the anti-Asian riots of 1907 and an aboriginal man being hauled off to jail.

He intends to unveil the full work, called The Banner, in the foyer of the Vancouver Public Library this spring. And to make some of his money back, he hopes to sell prints of some of the individual panels.

"I'm looking forward to when the poverty is finished," he says. "I'd like to try to move up and get someplace."

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With the 2010 Olympics coming to Vancouver, the eyes of the world will be on the city's Downtown Eastside. The millions poured into the neighbourhood seem to have had little impact on its squalor, its people or their problems with addiction. What should be done? Where would you start? How would you fix Canada's slum?


Public Forum:

On March 24 at 7 p.m. PT, The Globe, in partnership with CTV and the University of British Columbia, will bring together experts with fresh solutions for the Downtown Eastside at a public forum at UBC’s Robson Square campus.


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Update (March 6, 2009): Tickets are now SOLD OUT


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