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Walking a mile in the shoes of those less fortunate

The building site for a new development across from Vancouver's supervised drug injection site, Insite, April 11, 2012, in the city's Downtown Eastside. Critics claimed a proposed new condominium project is a threat to the neighbourhood.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Chris Rempel used to walk the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside looking for drugs.

This week, he's walking them as a guide.

Mr. Rempel, 36, is part of Eastside Stride. Launched by Vancouver's Union Gospel Mission to dovetail with the city's Homelessness Action Week, the program features walking tours conducted by local residents, including some, like Mr. Rempel, who have gone through UGM treatment programs. The tours are designed to enhance understanding of a neighbourhood best known for poverty, drug addiction and as the place where serial murderer Robert Pickton found many of his victims.

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The walkabouts come as Vancouver and other Canadian cities grapple with the toll of homelessness and as a landmark research project that has housed about 1,000 people in five cities nears the end of its term. At Home/Chez Soi, a $110-million federally funded program, took a "housing first" approach to serving people who are are homeless and mentally ill. It is scheduled to end in March, 2013. Agencies are working on transition plans, but in Vancouver and elsewhere, there are concerns about people drifting back to the streets.

All levels of government, meanwhile, are looking for ways to reduce homelessness, which has been estimated to cost taxpayers from $4.5-billion to $6-billion a year – a tally housing-first proponents say could be reduced with a co-ordinated approach that keeps people from cycling through jails and hospitals.

Mr. Rempel, while not part of the federal program, knows what a difference a room makes. He's lived in a hotel where bedbugs, broken toilets and violence were routine. He now lives in Maurice McElrea Place, a UGM facility.

"It's clean, it's safe, there's no drugs or alcohol," Mr. Rempel said on Tuesday, before leading his first tour. "It's a real step up from living in the SROs [single-room occupancy hotels]. The room is three times as big and it's clean."

During the tour, Mr. Rempel leads a group of 10 people around stops that include Pigeon Park Savings. The low-cost banking venture caters to people who are cut off from regular bank service by high costs or lack of a fixed address. While providing a much-needed service, it's also become a hang-out for opportunistic drug dealers.

Mr. Rempel shares other insights along the way. Crab Park at Portside, which boasts a stunning view of the harbour, is home to a memorial to Vancouver's missing and murdered women.

The Have Cafe, which provides food-service training, is a good place for a cheap meal. Mr. Rempel wants to take a course there, hoping it will help him reach his goal of working as a cook on a tugboat.

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His own story is unique and yet familiar. The condensed version, according to Mr. Rempel, goes like this: His father was an alcoholic. His mother packed up her son and left. But another child, a daughter, had died young of a heart defect and his mother found it hard to cope. They moved a lot. Mr. Rempel was kicked out of multiple schools.

He started taking drugs. He stole cars. He made the rounds of juvenile detention facilities. He worked in construction and on fishing boats. He drifted and wound up at Hastings and Main streets, drawn by easy access to drugs and fellow users to keep him company.

Asked what drugs he used, he rhymes off coke, crystal meth and heroin. About the only substance he didn't abuse was alcohol, which he shunned.

Eventually, he got sick, suffering from fatigue that left him struggling to climb a flight of stairs. Diagnosed with hepatitis C, he found, somewhat to his surprise, that doctors and nurses cared about him and did their best to get him well.

He decided to care about himself.

The UGM program wasn't the first one he tried but he hopes it will be the one that sticks. He's currently receiving disability payments and will also be paid for his guide duties, thanks to a grant UGM obtained for the program.

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On the second day of the tours, two of 10 guides had dropped out. Mr. Rempel was still at it. So was a man who insisted on donating half of his wages back to UGM.

Asked what he wants people to take away from the tours, Mr. Rempel says he hopes they will start thinking of the Downtown Eastside as a neighbourhood, just like theirs.

"I guess the most important thing is – we are human beings," he said, sitting in the UGM lobby as the next tour group gathered. "Not just an issue to be solved."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More


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