At the corner of East Hastings and Carrall Streets in Vancouver, Canada, a raucous crowd milled around the sidewalk. Goods were on offer from a dozen sellers: hand tools, electronics, clothing, toiletries, all of uncertain provenance. There was a frenzy to make deals. A man opened a backpack filled with new tubes of toothpaste, smiling with stumps of teeth. Another sold cartons of orange juice out of a baby carriage. A shiny new mountain bike was on sale for $20. Below it all, a hushed chorus: “Powder. Powder.” “Rock. Got rock.” “Down. Need down?”
This last is the local term for heroin, and there were capped syringes, tourniquets, and empty ampoules of sterile water scattered on the ground. In a shuttered doorway, a pale blonde girl in a dirty pink miniskirt, her thumb bruised black from constantly flicking her lighter, drew sunken-cheeked at a crack stem and looked up for a moment to ask, “You hooking?” A police car rolled slowly by but didn’t stop.The Downtown Eastside of Vancouver is a short walk and a world away from the glittering skyline of its business district, where a new billion-dollar convention center will soon welcome 400,000 visitors to the winter Olympics. Last year, the Economist magazine ranked Vancouver as the “world’s most livable city.”
With a temperate climate and progressive mores, it has long been a destination for Canada’s lost and dislocated. The Downtown Eastside, a dozen square blocks of dilapidated tenements and boarded storefronts, is home to one of the highest concentrations of drug addicts in the world. Scenes of open drug use recall the depths of the crack epidemic in New York City or the failed drug zone of Zurich’s “Needle Park” in the early 1990′s. An estimated 5,000 injection heroin and cocaine users live in the neighborhood, and the addict population suffers from HIV rates that are 30 times higher than the national average. Seventy percent have hepatitis C. Much of Vancouver’s homelessness is concentrated in the neighborhood, as is 40 percent of the city’s violent crime. The HIV incidence rate—the increase in new cases—hit 19 percent in 1996, the highest ever observed in the developed world. That’s comparable to the situation in Botswana.
[Read more at Slate]