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Poem for the Downtown Eastside and the fallen (asleep)

September 26, 2016
A housing complex in the Downtown Eastside, on Jackson Avenue, greets the rising sun at 8 a.m.

A housing complex in the Downtown Eastside on Jackson Ave. greets the sun at 8 a.m.

Today (September 26) was my first trip into the Downtown Eastside since the beginning of autumn and let me tell you, more than leaves are falling in that neighbourhood.

I was making one of my occasional visits to the area to collect a few weeks-worth of one little condo’s discarded beverage containers.

The good news—the building dropped quite a load of returnables on me, for which I’m grateful.

The bad news, however, was that all along my route in and out of the neighbourhood I saw something like a dozen people who were apparently sleeping rough.

I saw them sheltered from the chill in nothing but their clothes, curled up into tight fetal positions on sidewalks and in back alleys. I saw them bundled in sleeping bags and blankets in the green space beside the Viaduct. And I saw them slumped forward, with their heads resting in their laps, on the steps of doorways in Chinatown.

The point is that I saw more rough sleepers on this trip to the Downtown Eastside than on any of the seven or eight previous trips—since I began making the trips back in August of 2015.

And mind you, I don’t traverse a large area of the DTES when I pick up the condo returnables; I take a very direct route, in and out. My time frame on these pick ups does not allow a lot of dilly-dallying.

And I’m not talking about the perennial groups of men and women that I always see sitting on steps, or standing around on the sidewalks, doing nothing much of anything. I’m also not referring to the steady trickle of people trawling the back alleys of the Downtown Eastside.

I am only referring to the people that I saw sleeping—or whom I hoped were sleeping.

And no, I didn’t feel justified to stop and prod each person that I saw, to check that they were sleeping rather than drugged or in some kind of medical distress—not even with the fentanyl contamination of illegal street drugs driving an epidemic of overdose deaths across British Columbia.

I will always attempt to wake people who appear to have fallen asleep in restaurants but I will not do the same—without specific cause—to people who display as rough-sleeping homeless people.

Sleep is a precious commodity to homeless people and none of us appreciate being woken up for no good reason—doing so is considered rude and ignorant behaviour in Fairview and no doubt in the Downtown Eastside as well.

One summer’s afternoon, many years ago, I found a homeless friend of mine sitting motionless beside Jonathan Rogers Park, seemingly in a catatonic state. I was concerned and I repeatedly poked and prodded him.

That afternoon I learned that people do not prefer to be bothered in the middle of a drug high either.

If, for all the above reasons, I didn’t check the state of today’s apparent sleepers in the Downtown Eastside, neither did I leave any of them so much as a dime of what little money I possessed. Nor did I give my sleeping bag to one of the people that I saw sleeping in their bare clothing.

And—with the exception of a small bag of wine bottles—I made sure that every nickel’s-worth of the returnable containers bagged on my bicycle trailer left the neighbourhood with me.

So what did I do in the face of this visible escalation of human misery? Well, I wrote a little poem.

To the Downtown Eastside at first light I rode.
And what in the dawning did mine eyes behold?
But a dozen poor souls sleeping rough in the cold.

Some curled in alleys like leaves of autumn.
Others in doorways like things forgotten.
Unlike the cream—all fallen to the bottom.

One person. two persons, another and another.
A daughter, a son, perhaps a father or a brother.
All gripped in a desperate need to slumber.

How priceless such sleep to those who are weary.
Of lives desperate when they aren’t just dreary.
To nod off and perhaps die—what can the fear be?

Less dreaded for some than waking clearly.

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