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Hastings Street

The strongest emotion we are all familiar with at one point in time in our lives; love. It makes us do crazy things during crazy times, such as, sit in a confined space with 100s of other passengers during a pandemic for 40 hours, in order to cross 3 international borders and finally float through the swinging doors of Vancouver airport; and straight into the arms of my love. Between him and the Canadian air, I was in heaven.

Lucky for me the maple leaves were still green and glistening in the sunshine, rendering it warm enough to enjoy the Canadian scent from our balcony. After 7 months of enduring a long distance relationship, our love was about to be put to the test, as we embarked on our 14 day quarantine period.

Turns out the test was easy, and we passed with flying colours. To celebrate we jumped on the first train to China town to set up home in a neat little apartment on Hastings Street. The next day when I set out to explore, the city welcomed me with gentle snowflakes that floated down with such ease landing peacefully in front of me. I was mesmerised.

Upon noticing my reaction, my love went on to purchase the perfect engagement ring, diamonds in the shape of a snowflake. Within hours, the soft flakes had transformed the seedy pathways of Hastings Street into a winter wonderland.

Anyone familiar with Vancouver will know or have heard of Hastings Street. Due to its desirable climate, it attracts those that have to sleep rough. The regular tourist guides do not recommend visiting; and go as far as advising it should be avoided.

Being my second time in Vancouver, I knew it had endured one wave of Covid and the city was about to endure their next wave. Warning, what I saw was not pretty. While most people wore masks and interacted with sanitised hands regularly, there were those that still struggled. Such as, the group of people huddled under my local bus shelter, with needles hanging out of their arms, we observed a man inject a syringe into a woman’s neck, while she lay still on the ground.

These sightings became the norm. A trip to the chemist was met with a dealer confronting a buyer, while another man ran behind him screaming for milk, to help ease the pain of the pepper spray stinging his eyes. On the way home under the picturesque overpass that welcomes visitors to Chinatown, an ambulance fought its way through the crowd to reach the motionless individual sprawled on the ground.

I became curious about the number of overdoses I had witnessed since arriving. It turns out, there have been nearly 4 times more overdoses in Vancouver than deaths from Covid-19. In 2016 the Canadian Government declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency. Like Sydney, Vancouver follows the four Pillars approach: harm reduction, prevention, treatment, enforcement. Leaders are calling for drug decriminalisation in Canada. The idea being that decriminalising drugs would reduce the black-market trade, remove the burden from Police and allow more intervention from health professionals.

It became very clear very quickly, that the Vancouver I had come to know and love 7 months ago, was a changed city. I never thought as a resident of Sydney’s Kings Cross that I would find myself experiencing a type of culture shock from the open, and very public drug use.

Over the coming weeks, I grew more eager to understand why such a dramatic change in such a short time had occurred. Whilst the locals were reluctant to talk, I found some answers by speaking with the people who worked as volunteers and in the local charity stores. The result of border closures was less availability of drugs and the drugs being ‘cut’ with Fentanyl, a very strong opioid used for pain relief and after cancer-treatment. The unknown strength was the danger in what is causing most of the overdoses. Users couldn’t have any idea of what they were really taking.

The culture of acceptance was confronting at first; however, what perplexed me most, was how people simply looked the other way when confronted with an overdose. It seems there was a price to pay for personal freedom.

As the days grew shorter and greyer, so too did my time in Vancouver. The snow once again crafted a perfect white film over the Downtown East side to soften the harsh reality of street life. The life I had grown used to seeing and not seeing at the same time. Familiarity, it can have a strange old reaction on one’s perception of a place and time.

by Tenacious T


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