Clean-up Crew

When the opportunity arose for us to move back to Vancouver, specifically the Downtown Eastside, but this time with kids, the first thing I thought of was constantly scanning the ground for dirty needles. The first week we were here, we went for a walk to a park and my daughter wanted to walk through the grass, but I told her not to. We had a minor argument and I explained that there might be things in the grass that would make her sick and she might never get better. I was thinking of Hepatitis C.

I’ve since relaxed a little bit since I have yet to see a dirty needle on the ground. We visited the same park recently and I did see there a sharps container for used needles, but it looked disused. Besides needles, there is also a curious lack of any garbage on the ground here. There are the occasional styrofoam containers received from soup kitchens and discarded newspapers, but the neighbourhood is pretty clean, considering.

The cleanliness can largely be attributed to the employment of residents to walk the sidewalks and parks picking up the trash. Pretty simple. Even so, I still find it hard to believe that I haven’t seen any needles considering how many I saw before. Another theory is the simple economics of crack smoking vs. heroin shooting. Despite the fact that the highs are opposites, crack is so much cheaper that heroin users just changed their habits. I suppose, also, that the establishment of InSite, the supervised injection site will have had some effect on the number of needles strewn through the streets and alleys.

Nevertheless, the clean-up crews’ presence is definitely felt. The neighbourhood does feel cleaner and it can’t all be attributed to gentrification (though I wonder if it may speed up the process of gentrification since it will make the neighbourhood feel safer to a larger number of people, thus forcing property prices higher).

This morning, I was taking the kids to the library while the orange-vested clean-up crew was working around the intersection we were to cross. On one side of the street an crew member was belting out a unique, off key rendition of “Our God is an Awesome God.” It caught the attention of my daughter who asked why he was doing that. I told her it was because he wants to.

Our God is an awesome god

he reigns from heaven above

with grace and power da da da God

Our God is an awesome god

He sang this three times straight (though he may have been going on a while before we arrived), never figuring out how that third line should go but sounding pretty confident that these were the words other than the da da da.

I crossed the street with my kids and the singer was just behind us as we approached someone else on the team. He looked a little bit older than the singer and also pretty irritated. He placed some garbage in his bag with a grabber when the singer started his fourth refrain. He pursed his lips and blurted out, “Will you shut the f*** up!”

I looked at him, wondering if I should tell him to watch his language around children when he said, “I’m sorry about the language, but enough’s enough.”

It was one of the few times I remember my daughter not asking me “what did he said?” after an encounter on the street.


About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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