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Downtown's Denizens

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"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.

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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.


For tickets, call toll-free 1-866-545-0016.
Update (March 6, 2009): Tickets are now SOLD OUT


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