Homeless in the city: from Tokyo to Vancouver

It has been three years since I came to Vancouver from Japan to study communications and media studies. Vancouver has earned an international reputation as one of the most livable and beautiful cities in the world and my initial impressions of Vancouver were most favorable – the city was lovely and people were friendly and open. On more than a few occasions, when I needed directions, I was helped by compassionate strangers. Vancouver appeared to be a global economic hub, with corporate headquarters housed in gleaming office structures.

A homeless person in Japan | Photo by Peregrino Will Reign, Flickr.

A homeless person in Japan | Photo by Peregrino Will Reign, Flickr.

At first glance, the city was perfect. Over the long term, however, another impression became a counterpoint to this flawless image. I was increasingly dismayed by the extraordinary number of homeless people on the streets and in shelters, especially in and around the Downtown Eastside. In Japan, there are of course, homeless people, particularly in the major urban centres of Tokyo and Osaka but according to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the number of homeless people in Japan has decreased dramatically from approximately 18,564 in 2007 to 9576 in 2012. In contrast, the number of homeless people in Vancouver has increased substantially and the Metro Vancouver Homeless Count, released by the Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness in February 2012 showed there were over 2600 homeless people in
the city.

Unlike in Japanese cities, people in desperate situations beg for money and food on the streets of Vancouver. I’ve had a few conversations with homeless people on the street, and one man, in particular, stood out for me. He was 37, suffering from mental illness and using illegal drugs regularly. He said that when he was a child, he suffered abuse from his father. After his parents divorced when he was 14, he lived with his mother and his grandmother and started to use drugs as an escape from a harsh and traumatic life. He also said that he was not able to work as normal people do because his mental illness made him isolated and uncommunicative. Addicted to harmful drugs and wracked by his childhood traumas, he continued his downward spiral.

His story was difficult to listen to, and while it was impossible to know precisely what might be true and what might be embellished in his narrative, his emotional connection to the events he described was obvious and compelling.

I went to Chinatown for a research project in a sociology class last year. It was my first visit to the Carnegie Community Centre on East Hastings. One sees many homeless people, many addicted people, and many disaffected people in the neighbourhood and around the building. The washrooms of the Carnegie Centre have prominently situated boxes for the disposal of needles. From my rather naïve Japanese perspective, I wondered about the needle disposal boxes – it seemed to me as if the centre and the government were encouraging drug use. Of course, I came to realize that the needle disposal box is essential for safety, as it is one means of protecting people from infectious diseases.

I never saw such conditions in Japan, but my eyes have been opened to be sure. Solutions to the apparent health and social problems in the Downtown Eastside are not easily found. Homelessness is an enormously complex social issue and is clearly tied up with poverty, addiction, mental illness, racism and more. My time in Vancouver as a student has introduced me to one of the city’s most glaring and difficult social problems – a problem that is as daunting as it is urgent.