P1. narrative

A Place Called Home

No one who has spent more than 10 minutes walking through the blocks of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) is likely to forget the experience. It is one of North America’s most deprived neighbourhoods, with very high of levels of drugs, alcohol-abuse, crime and prostitution. It also boasts over 40 separate agencies and charities providing a variety of services from safe needle use, shelter accommodation, and free meals, to counselling services.

In DTES, it is the sheer concentration of people with drug and/or psychological problems, right next to Vancouver’s central business district, premium condominium and tourist areas, that grabs your attention.

While researching Vancouver homelessness for this project, I reviewed books, videos, exhibitions and images produced over the last 30 years. Many of the images could have been taken today. Many attempt to sensationalize. While they may evoke a sense of pity, many simply confront the viewer with the helplessness of the subject. I must admit to a sort of “drug and homelessness fatigue” at times, a bit like seeing too many pictures of a war zone and its victims. Once there, however, despite the familiarity brought by my repeatedly walking its streets, it retains the capacity to shock…..and to appall.

While Mayor Gregor Robertson’s excellent initiative to end Vancouver homelessness by 2015 is starting to deliver, the issue remains persistent. Those unfortunate enough to be homeless are 10 times more like to contract Hepatitis C than the national average. The HIV rate, at 30%, is the same as Botswana. Those who fall into drug-taking have a life expectancy of between 33 and 34 years. Conditions in a number of the charity-run shelters are sufficiently difficult that people are known to check out into parks “for a holiday”.

I have chosen to document the outdoor places people end up sleeping. I have shown them the respect, perhaps unusually, of not including them in the images. What follows then is a documentary record of vestiges of homelessness, which I call “habitation sites”.  In DTES, the ‘United We Can’ charity pays people to perform a daily clean-up of the streets, so there is an ever-changing array of detritus. Elsewhere, in parks and wasteland, the habitation sites are more persistent, some lasting many months.

For Vancouver’s homeless, what you see before you is where they live. Please dwell on that when you switch off the light.

Stephen Cogbill

June 2011, Vancouver