It Was A Cohesive Community -- Until Potent Drugs Changed Everything
This is a condensed version of Chapter 3 of the new book A Thousand Dreams: Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and the Fight for Its Future.
Ken Hodgins was living in a Downtown Eastside hotel and was wanted for ten armed robberies when he was shot and killed by police on January 2, 1991, after refusing officers' repeated requests to drop his loaded gun. Hodgins, 37, had committed the robberies to support a severe heroin habit that was costing him at least $500 daily, and he had taken eight caps of heroin an hour before his encounter with police. At the coroner's inquest into Hodgins' death, his parole officer submitted a report that said, "Although the subject died of gunshot wounds, it would seem that in reality he died of heroin addiction."
Hodgins had a stable family life and a good-paying job as a tree faller on Vancouver Island when a series of tragedies led to him using a syringe to manage his grief. His habit had become extreme by 1986, when he was charged with 16 robberies and convicted of committing nine. Three years later, a Corrections Canada report concluded: "Kenneth Hodgins no doubt has a great deal of potential. He has employment skills that are marketable. He has a sincere desire to be a positive role model for his son. What he is lacking however appears to be the intestinal fortitude that it will require for him to leave heroin use behind him."
Hodgins was dead less than four months after being released from prison in 1990.
In his address to the jury, Coroner Larry Campbell spelled out the dire consequences of not doing more to help those with debilitating drug habits: "As the coroner for the city of Vancouver for the past ten years, I have dealt with literally hundreds of deaths involving heroin addiction. Fortunately most of them do not involve the police and shooting, but violence has almost always touched the lives of the addict at one time or another. You are just as surely dead from an overdose as from a bullet or knife. . . .
"There is no doubt that this addiction is an illness as surely as cancer, heart disease or a tumour. The difficulty is in the treatment, and while certain successes have been registered, the problem appears to continue unabated."
Campbell's conclusions marked a philosophical shift from his beliefs a decade earlier when he was a RCMP drug officer, and were progressive in the 1980s and early '90s when many officials were still approaching addiction as a criminal problem.
The complexities of Hodgins's case were tragic but not rare. The evolution of drugs through the 1980s had created chaos. Between 1984 and 1987 there were fewer than twenty heroin overdose deaths annually in B.C., but in 1988 the number of overdose deaths jumped to 39 and then began a meteoric rise.
According to provincial toxicology reports, the purity of heroin seized on the street between 1984 and 1993 surged from an average of six per cent potency to more than 60 per cent. Unlike in eastern Canada, where high-strength drugs had always been a market option, users in B.C. had no idea about the purity of the drug they were injecting, and most of the carnage was taking place on the streets of the Downtown Eastside.
Although the death rate was increasing, the neighbourhood was still a functional, stable place for people to live in the 1980s, Campbell recalls. There were no violent turf wars among dealers, since the drug trade in Vancouver was controlled by three or four groups. Most addicts were injecting heroin, a drug that made its users relatively mellow.
"The biggest eye-opener I had was how cohesive the community was," Campbell says of his early years as a coroner. "It was a place you could go where, if you were different, you wouldn't be judged. There was a sense that if you were down and out, someone would help you, would take you in for the night. For the retirees and widows, it was not a bad life."
Campbell remembers being called to a rooming house where a retired logger was slumped dead over his kitchen table, an open newspaper and a lottery ticket nearby. The man had just won the lottery, but whether the sudden windfall had caused his heart attack couldn't be known for sure. The man's relatives, who had long dismissed him as a drunk but would inherit his new-found money, wanted to cremate him in a cardboard box. The beat officers in the neighbourhood, outraged by this, devised a plan to ensure the man would be given a proper funeral, Campbell recalls. The officers told his relatives the man should be buried in an expensive casket at a proper wake with food and drinks; all of it could be paid for from the lottery winnings. Limousines were rented to take about 30 of the man's Downtown Eastside friends to the funeral.
"I remember these guys showing up in suits out of the '40s, with ties so wide you could land a jet on them. They were all just family down there. They had this incredible funeral," Campbell says today. The number of low-income hotels in the Downtown Eastside continued to decline in the 1980s. The person who fought hardest to reverse the closures was Jim Green, an outspoken football- and opera-loving man with a master's degree in anthropology who became a fierce protector of the community's housing stock.
Green, who took over the Downtown Eastside Residents' Association in 1980, wrote a report calling on the city to start protecting low-income rooms, especially with the World's Fair, Expo 86, coming to Vancouver the following year. "Over the past four years approximately 2,000 units of housing have been lost in the Downtown Eastside. With the approach of Expo the number of units lost will increase drastically," predicted Green's 1985 report, Housing Conditions and Population in the Downtown Eastside.
Ghost of a tenant
Still today, the ghost of evicted tenant Olaf Solheim continues to haunt the neighbourhood.
Solheim, a retired logger, had lived in the Patricia Hotel on East Hastings for more than 40 years, but he was kicked out when the hotel went upscale to house tourists during Expo 86. At age 88, he was relocated to the Columbia Hotel, but he wouldn't unpack his meagre belongings, refused to eat, and often returned to the Patricia in a confused state. Six weeks after his eviction, Solheim was dead. Vancouver's medical health officer said Solheim's passing was caused, in part, by the shock of losing his home.
Vancouver's Expo 86 was officially declared a success, with government claiming the World's Fair had brought not only tourists but ongoing financial benefits to B.C. But not everyone in the Downtown Eastside agreed with that assessment.
While Jim Green argued the biggest legacy from the fair was a loss of housing, Judy Graves would have said it was a shift in the community's drug culture.
"[The government] told us they were bringing us a world-class city, but what they brought us was world-class drugs," laments Graves, who from 1979 to 1991 worked at Cordova House, a facility opened by the city in the 1970s to house the 67 people police had identified as the most problematic in the neighbourhood.
Many service providers were unprepared for the changes more potent cocaine would bring; they hadn't even believed cocaine was addictive, because initially it was so weak. Stronger cocaine at the same low prices arrived with Expo, Graves says, and when people got hooked the prices were jacked up. After Expo, Graves saw dealers from other countries moving into some notorious Downtown Eastside hotels, and she recalls turf wars erupting over the lucrative drug business.
It hit the newspapers in July 1986 that "killer coke" had caused six fatal overdoses in the past year; cocaine had evolved from being a drug only the rich dabbled in to one accessible to poverty-stricken addicts.
And by the early 1990s, the availability of cocaine was combined with life-threatening purity levels of more than 90 per cent. In the past, cocaine sold at the street level had usually run between fifty and seventy-five per cent purity. Police were warning addicts to "step on" ( street jargon for dilute ) their scores to prevent more deaths. Young drug users were warned against a fashionable combination of heroin and cocaine called a "speedball," also proving to be lethal.
Donald MacPherson, today Vancouver's drug policy coordinator, had a front-row view of the neighbourhood's troubles in the late 1980s while he ran the Carnegie Community Centre's adult literacy program.
At first MacPherson saw the core problems of the Downtown Eastside as alcohol or cheap substitutes like shoe polish and Lysol. He used as his unofficial measuring stick the roof of the Carnegie Centre. "It would be littered with Lysol cans from the Roosevelt Hotel next door," he recalls.
But users were soon shooting up drugs in plain view on the streets. And there were suddenly two or three 24-hour grocery stores on every block with bare shelves and a booming under-the-counter cocaine business. MacPherson's unofficial barometer was revealing different information by the early 1990s: "I'd go up to the top of the Carnegie Centre, and it was covered with syringes from the Roosevelt Hotel."
It was wild on the streets at the corner of Main and Hastings, and MacPherson recalls Carnegie Centre employees regularly helping people in distress. "Our door staff were reviving people every day in the washrooms who were blue," he says. There were so many memorial services for locals who had fatally overdosed that it seemed they were happening daily.
Yet the drug-free Carnegie Centre maintained some normalcy inside during these turbulent times. The Carnegie offered a learning centre, a library, a kitchen program, a seniors' program, camping trips, coffee, and crafts. "The Chinese ladies would come in for the ballroom dance classes from [the suburbs] on Sunday afternoons and weed through all the chaos out front," MacPherson recalls.
Drug use booms
By late 1988, injection drug use had so increased in prevalence that John Turvey, the founder of the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society, started single-handedly giving out 3,000 clean syringes a month to try to reduce the spread of infectious diseases among addicts.
Alongside him was Jerry Adams, who was hired by Turvey as a DEYAS outreach worker in 1986. He says Turvey, a former heroin addict who got clean in the 1970s, would walk the streets for hours, plucking clean rigs from his green army bag to give to surprised users. "I saw the first needles getting handed out," recalls Adams. "It was quite an amazing thing." Turvey received the Order of British Columbia in 1984 for his social work on the street, and he was recognized by the Atlanta Centers for Disease Control in 1988 for his needle distribution.
DEYAS eventually secured $100,000 in government funding and got permission in 1989 to open Canada's first official needle exchange. Five hundred addicts were using it regularly by the end of its first month. DEYAS hired two extra staff, who drove a big green van, initially handing out about 10,000 new rigs a month and collecting old ones.
"John did this work out of his heart. He had a volatile temper, but John was all heart. He was very concerned for these people," recalls Adams. ( Turvey would be mourned by many in the Downtown Eastside when he died in 2006 of mitochondrial myopathy, a fatal muscle and nerve disorder, at the age of 61. )
There was a public outcry from those who argued the needle exchange enabled drug users to keep injecting. Coroner Larry Campbell flatly rejected that position, saying the needle exchange was necessary to keep addicts healthy until governments could be persuaded to properly fund detox and recovery facilities. "All they were trying to do was keep people alive until someone woke up and put real money into this. If it had been any other disease, we would have been on it like a rash," Campbell says today. "There was certainly a recognition out there that addiction was an illness, but it was more often seen as a criminal event. And there was virtually no treatment."
By August 1992, the coroners service was lamenting that five young people a week across B.C. -- ranging from those homeless on the streets to healthy recreational users -- were dying from drug overdoses.
Campbell's morgue was becoming increasingly crowded, and the coroner knew something major needed to change.
A Thousand Dreams: Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and the Fight for Its Future is published by Greystone Books, an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc., and available in bookstores Saturday.
A Thousand Dreams: Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and the Fight for Its Future, written by Larry Campbell, Neil Boyd and Lori Culbert, reaches book stores on Saturday. The book, which chronicles the history of this neighbourhood and makes recommendations for its future, is a collaboration by Vancouver's former chief coroner and mayor; oft-quoted Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd; and Vancouver Sun reporter Lori Culbert. The Sun is publishing condensed versions of three chapters from the book.
Today: Lethal Heroin, Killer Coke, and Expo 86
Chapter 3 is set in the 1980s and early '90s, when drug addiction began to escalate in the neighbourhood.
Friday: Canada's First Supervised Injection Site
Chapter 12 looks at one of the key harm-reduction initiatives to combat drug addiction.
Saturday: The Road Ahead
Chapter 17 calls for solutions to make the neighbourhood healthier and raises crucial questions for other large North American cities.
Larry Campbell, Neil Boyd and Lori Culbert
October 29, 2009