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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 caf 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.

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