Toronto Star, August 6, 2016: VANCOUVER, B.C.-The man is dancing and watching his reflection in the window, humming to music only he can hear and oblivious to the small group of visitors walking past.
We’re making our way through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, widely considered the worst neighbourhood in Canada.
But unlike tourists who stumble into the downtrodden area while trying to find their way between historic Gastown and colourful Chinatown, we have come on purpose to the area notorious for its poverty, addiction, prostitution, mental illness and homelessness.
“What you’ll see may shock you. There’s alcoholism and sadness,” our guide Jenn Potter says as we walk towards Hastings St. “But no one will bother you. You’re 100 per cent safe.”
We are taking a “Socially Responsible Van” tour and, along with the sadness, we’re seeing social enterprises that are “making a difference a little bit at a time.”
Potter started giving the tour in 2014 for ToursByLocals.
“I’ve probably toured over a couple hundred people through the Downtown Eastside, a place most tourists either avoid or walk through without understanding what they’re seeing,” she says.
We pause for a little heads up before walking by Pigeon Park, where people are curled up in sleeping bags on the dirty pavement or standing around chatting on this sunny afternoon.
“My philosophy is that understanding a neighbourhood and its people creates more compassion, empathy and productive communication around social issues,” says Potter.
We visit East Van Roasters where they make their own bean-to-bar chocolate in the back and serve good strong coffee in the front. The busy little shop also hires marginalized women who are fighting addiction.
We pop into Skwachàys Lodge. The boutique hotel run by the Vancouver Native Housing Society has a totem pole outside and a sweat lodge inside.
The lodge has three floors of residences and three floors of hotel rooms that showcase different native artists. One has poetry written on the walls and another celebrates the raven.
We stop to look at a faded mural on the side of a social housing building. The photos of people jumping for joy are tattered and peeling off the brick, but you can still feel their joy.
We head down an alley with a mattress on the ground and a man slumped against a wall. We go through a metal door and climb the stairs to the Karma Teachers yoga studio, where light pours in and students pay nothing, or whatever they can afford.
And we go next door to Save on Meats, a diner that serves boozy milkshakes with bacon crumbled on top to students and hipsters in expensive shoes.
But the diner also feeds a lot of the marginalized people with its token program. One $2.25 token equals one sandwich. Corporations buy them in bulk to distribute through social agencies.
Potter hands each of us our own token, with strict instructions to give it away before the end of the tour.
Within minutes of leaving the diner, a man in a dirty coat asks for money. Instead of ignoring him or giving him a fiver that might go toward his next high, you hand over the token, knowing it will go toward a meal and not addiction.
You give him a sandwich and you give yourself the opportunity to look an invisible person in the eye.
“This has changed my life,” says Potter. “I’m braver now.”
Like many locals, she used to steer clear of the Downtown Eastside. She hopes the people she brings here will leave knowing about the good that’s happening.
As we walk down Hastings, a couple from Quebec wandering back from Chinatown looks a little lost and more than a little confused.
We stop and get them pointed in the right direction before Potter takes us deeper into the neighbourhood and “a more nuanced understanding of the hope that exists for the marginalized groups in this complicated community.”
Take this tour: The Socially Responsible Van tour costs $185 for one person, $195 for two people or up to $275 for 10. It takes 3.5 hours and is available several times a week. Check toursbylocals.com/SocialEnterpriseInVan for availability.
Get there: Air Canada and WestJet fly directly to Vancouver from Toronto daily. It’s about a five-hour flight. Once there, you can take the SkyTrain from the airport to downtown in about half an hour.
Seasons/weather: It rains a lot in Vancouver. Bring a raincoat and soak up the locals’ attitude: “It’s raining, so what?”
Get around: Vancouver is very walkable. You may have to dodge umbrellas. Take a walk around the Seawall, take the SeaBus to go poke around Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver or hop on the Aquabus to Granville Island.
Don’t miss: During FlyOver Canada at Canada Place, your seat will move and you will bob and weave on this thrilling virtual ride over icebergs, waterfalls, mountains and other beautiful bits of the country.
Do your research:Tourism Vancouver