Tours of the Downtown Eastside: ‘Poverty pimping’ or compassion building?
There are concerns being raised that paid tours of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood are exploiting some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
The walking tours, dubbed “Socially Responsible Vancouver,” are billed as showcasing local businesses that are trying help the community, and cost $185 for a one-on-one experience or about $27 per person for groups of 10.
The 3.5-hour tours are listed as not kid-friendly.
Guide Jenn Potter declined an interview request Thursday, but previously told The Toronto Star newspaper she believes helping people better understand a neighbourhood “creates more compassion, empathy and productive communication around social issues.”
Her tour reportedly includes stops at Pigeon Park and Save on Meats, where attendees are encouraged to purchase a meal token and hand it to someone in need.
The Union Gospel Mission, which works to help people in the Downtown Eastside struggling with poverty and addiction, told CTV News that such tours can do both harm and good.
“A tour like this is, in a way, kind of like playing with fire: you can ignite change and empowerment, but you can also cause some damage. The trick is to do it responsibly,” spokesman Jeremy Hunka said.
Hunka said the UGM offers guided walks every couple of years around the time of Homelessness Action Week, but they are hosted by locals who are paid for their time.
The intention is to show people the ongoing efforts to transform the neighbourhood, in the hopes of inspiring them to get involved.
But the UGM only conducts the tours every couple of years to avoid creating what Hunka calls “the fishbowl effect” on vulnerable residents.
“We don’t want people who feel like they’re desperate, or feel like they’re down-and-out, to feel like they’re on display. We need to offer it with dignity and hope,” he said.
Some on social media have responded to Potter’s tours by labelling them “poverty pimping” or “poverty tourism,” a phenomenon that’s been seen around the world with varying degrees of voyeurism and sensitivity. Most recently, tours of the ghettos of Rio de Janeiro have made international headlines.
Others, including some who live in the area, said they could see potential value in exposing people to the “strife and turmoil” they might not otherwise experience.
For more information on the tours, visit the Tours by Locals website.
With a report from CTV Vancouver’s St. John Alexander