Downtown Eastside advocate wants fewer cars, more people on Hastings Street
Art by Smokey D adorns the walls of an alley in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Submitted/Karen Ward)
VANCOUVER -- A Downtown Eastside advocate is calling for a host of improvements to public space in the neighbourhood to help with two public health crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, and an increase in fatal overdoses.
Karen Ward said she'd like to see some lanes of Hastings Street be closed, similar to the way the city closed one lane of Beach Avenue in the West End to cars so cyclists and pedestrians have more room to spread out.
Ward said she'd also like to see alleys, like the one behind the Overdose Prevention Site at 58 E. Hastings, fitted with benches and awnings to make them more welcoming.
British Columbia's provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has for months emphasized how important it is for residents to try to stay two metres, or six feet, apart from others to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But in the Downtown Eastside, where the sidewalks are particularly crowded with people walking, buying and selling items, socializing and living, there is no space for physical distancing — especially on crowded Hastings.
At the same time, residents of the neighbourhood — many of whom struggle with poverty, poor health, mental illness, addiction and homelessness — are particularly vulnerable to developing complications if they catch the virus.
"Physical distancing needs to be improved to the point where it's a possibility," said Ward, a DTES resident who also works with the city as an adviser on COVID-19 response and drug policy for the neighbourhood.
"You can't keep six feet away from people, and if you try to you're just going to freak yourself out because you can't."
Despite fears that COVID-19 could quickly spread in the crowded SROs and homeless shelters of the Downtown Eastside, there hasn't yet been an outbreak in the neighbourhood and B.C. has been successful in flattening the curve of cases.
But as some services were shut down or changed to prevent the spread of the virus, overdose deaths have spiked. Figures released by the province Thursday showed that in May, B.C. reported its highest-ever monthly total of fatal overdoses from illicit drugs.
Because using drugs alone is one of the riskiest things drug users can do, Ward would also like to see large, open-air tents where people can consume drugs safely. She suggested that 58 West Hastings, a currently vacant lot slated for social housing development, could be used as a park and an outdoor safe consumption site.
The city has already opened or expanded five "parklet" sites in the Downtown Eastside, and Ward said they're an improvement to the neighbourhood.
But she's pushing the city to do more to make the sidewalks in the DTES safer and easier for residents to use. For instance, Ward said, the neighbourhood desperately needs bike lanes, because when people don't feel safe riding on the road they bike on the sidewalk, and collide with pedestrians.
"Why do we have street parking?" Ward asked. "We don't need that. You could start by taking a lane, expand the sidewalk and open up a bike lane."