Inside Vancouver's Downtown East Side Junk Market

By Nicky Young


A vendor at the junk market. Photos by Nicky Young.

Three years ago, right around the time the Olympics landed in Vancouver, the Vancouver Police force decided to tackle a particularly inoffensive problem in the city’s already low-income, rough downtown eastside neighbourhood—street vendors selling random junk—with a ticketing spree. In what many local activists described as “discriminatory policing,” people all over the city were pissed off that the city’s most disadvantaged people were being fined and prevented from generating a meagre income.

In response to what many people feel is unfair and shoddy policing, a weekly street market was launched. For the past three years, every Sunday, vendors in the eastside gather to sell old electronics, porn, and other random junk.

I sat down with one of the main organizers, Roland, to understand why he felt it was necessary to start a junk market to protest the city’s authoritative stance.


Roland Clarke.

VICE: So how did all of this start, Roland?
Roland:
In the summer of 2010, the police in Vancouver launched a big crackdown on all the unregulated selling that that you see up and down Hastings Street. They were giving vending tickets to all these people that were on welfare, which is terrible because the bylaw is just for displaying goods, designed to prevent businesses from taking over the sidewalk without a permit, without anything to do with unregulated selling. The trouble is most of these people are homeless or don’t have a fixed address so a few months after the ticket is sent they get a court date, which they will miss due to not being able to receive mail, receive a failure to appear and go to jail. It’s a horribly cruel and inhumane way of actually dealing with a street disorder.

So this market started as a protest in 2010, as way of saying that there’s all this selling out of desperation going on because welfare is so low, we’re going to create a safe zone here.  We’re going to monitor it and we’re going to make sure the police aren’t going to come here and ticket, and it lasted for a long time without any permits or support from the City. Last September we convinced the
City to give us permits and support, so now we’re actually a permitted event. It’s legal. We’re here every Sunday, rain or shine.

Binning [taking stuff out of the garbage to sell it] goods, recycling, and selling are socially beneficial and healthy. It’s a micro enterprise and if you run an organized market you can separate that from drug dealing and stolen goods, which is what we’re trying to do. Many police we are dealing with will insist that people don’t go to jail for these vending tickets but in fact they do. In the downtown lower eastside half of all incarcerations are now for administrative crimes, which means that they are just failing to appear in court. Half of the people in jail right now really shouldn’t be there.  There should be a humane solution for them, but the police can hide the statistics, legitimately say that no one goes to jail for tickets because that is technically true, you don’t go to jail for the ticket, you go to jail for the failure to appear.


The junk market crowd on Sunday.

How does the market function?
We have $30,000 and that’s going to last us a year. So for 52 markets a year, that’s a little over 500 bucks a market.  Most of these volunteers work for $3.50 an hour. The people in charge work for seven bucks an hour. I work for seven bucks an hour. I’m here for twelve hours so I make 84 bucks a day, but I make the same rate that the top level volunteers would make as a coordinator, and all the other coordinator jobs don’t get any additional wage so we have to make that money stretch. 

In terms of the economic benefit, it’s incredible, because if you walk around the market on a good day we have 200 vendors. We try and poll how much they make and it’s a conservative estimate to say that 10,000 dollars of business is done at this market every day. So if you think about 10,000 dollars of commerce and you multiply that by 52, that’s half a million dollars of direct economic injection into the poorest and most marginalized population of the downtown eastside. That’s a 20:1 multiplier on the city investment to run this market versus the money in the hands of the people.

So if you have a food program and you buy food and you feed them that is 1:1 investment. If you have a make work employment program it’s 1:1, it costs the government five bucks to pay somebody five bucks. What you’re doing here is you’re creating an economic environment where people can make their own money. All you have to do is pay to create this zone where vending is allowed and there is a greater than 10:1 return on investment. 

The vast majority of vendors here would never sign up for a job. They’re so independent and they hate services so much that if you told them to show up and do this work for three hours, they would say screw you, but if you tell them that there is a space where they can do their own stuff, sell their own work and nobody is watching them, then they will show up. It’s an incredibly low barrier environment that benefits the people that are effectively the hardest to reach with a service, so I think it’s an incredible thing.

Crazy art is all over the place, flat screen TVs… we regularly get shipments of truck tires, there is stuff that comes down here and you just have no idea how it got here. When estates aren’t dealt with properly, weird stuff end up in the trash, and we’re on the receiving end.


Just a few of the items you can purchase at the junk market.

Have there been any unexpected benefits?
There is the Greenest City initiative, and there’s the Zero Waste initiative that Vancouver is fighting for. This street market alone, we believe, removes at least 20–30 tons of waste that would normally end up in landfills each year. That aspect and the social benefits is why the city should fund it. It should be a model for other cities.

You harness the power of hardworking people who have multiple barriers, who suffer from mental health and/or addiction issues, which makes them very weary of interacting with any of the services and almost impossible to employ. Binners in Vancouver are incredibly hard working. I know some of them that will walk to Point Grey and back [18KM]. That’s hard work.

What kind of problems does one encounter when they’re running a junk market?
There are a lot of problems with the street market—it’s impossible to say everything is going smoothly. One of the problems is that it’s very hard to separate stolen goods from binned goods, but we are working closely with the VPD on that and there are general guidelines.

Anything with a price tag on it on it, anytime someone is selling three or more identical things in packages, [we won’t let it get sold]. We’re fighting the prejudice of the downtown eastside as well; insofar as a police officer will much more likely identify something as stolen here, versus if they found it in a garage sale in Strathcona. But to give the VPD credit they are working with us. They know we’re not the bad guys and we’re not trying to hide illegal activity, but it’s difficult.

In this part of the city for instance I would venture to guess that hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug transactions are done every day, just in Pigeon Park alone. Yet in our market, if someone sells drugs it’s our fault, and we need to regulate better and separate the drug trade; that’s the hard part.

There are people saying, “Well there are drugs being sold at the market.” It’s the downtown eastside, there are drugs being sold everywhere, how is it our fault? At the same time if you want a certain kind of customer to walk through, if you want tourists coming to Chinatown to stop and shop then you have to combat that. You basically have to put a veneer over the downtown eastside long enough for vendors to get the benefit of what they sell so there are lots of challenges in that area. I think the smart vendors understand that and I’ve seen many vendors up their game in the last year. They prepare all week, cleaning up their stuff, they get a table and improve their presentation and then they get a higher price for less work.

That’s exactly the kind of transformation you want to see in somebody who’s doing this, there is a lot of social capital that’s built. You see a lot of vendors working together in ways they wouldn’t have before. A third of the vendors are women and a lot of those women are current or former sex trade workers. I know one woman who regularly says that this market helps her to work less, and she likes it much more.

Another challenge is that a lot of these people are addicted to drugs, but if you consider the transition of somebody that might want to get off addiction but then still be unemployable, this is better for them. It’s an opportunity and you’re still leaving open the personal choice. So there are a lot of challenges, but it’s governed organically, so if problems come up they are solved democratically and we work our way through it.


Baby formula and flip flops.

It seems like there’s a huge First Nations influence in the market as well.
Half of the vendors are native. Five percent of the population in BC is native. In the downtown eastside it’s as high as ten percent, and the area around Main and Hastings is around fifty percent.

There is a hugely disproportionate population of natives here, mostly associated with the trauma of being native in BC. Many of the vendors here are homeless, all they do is bin all the time and find places to sleep. Lots of them live in 10’ by 10’ single room occupancy rooms, so it’s an incredibly interesting population. What we hope is that more of the downtown eastside agencies will start to engage with the market because these are people who don’t engage with the services at any other time. They don’t wait in food lines because they make their own money, they’re as independent as they possibly can be and it’s an opportunity to reach out to a population who are still in trouble. They have addiction and mental health needs. They will never ask for help but there’s a possibility that if you have a booth here and they see it they might use it.


This is Ken, one of the vendors, who told us about a woman who bought a Tiffany lamp at the junk market then flipped it for $8,000 in Gas Town.

What are your plans for the future?
The future plans are just to expand. Last Sunday it was packed, and if we had twice the space we would fill it. There’s no question that there is demand for more space and more days of the week. The question is how we do it, how we get the money, and how we convince funding bodies that we won’t become a market for thieves and drug dealing. We have to combat and regulate that and we have to make it become something that can be more easily fundable. I think we’re starting to turn that corner.

OK so level with me, what’s the weirdest thing that’s showed up here?
The weirdest thing I saw was an ultrasound machine. Now, all this stuff is supposedly binned items right out of the trash, right? Where did they get it? And how much did it sell for, because it was gone at the end of the day. Who would have bought that? I have pictures.

Well I guess I know where to go if I want a cheap ultrasound machine! Thanks Roland.

 

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