Portrait of a Crisis

Portrait of a Crisis

We talk to users at the heart of the opioid crisis in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
November 4, 2016, 2:13pm

All photos by Donovan Mahoney

Map by Ralph Damman

The physical footprint of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside isn't that large, but its impact reverberates well beyond its geographical borders. In many ways the neighbourhood is the apex of Canada's opioid crisis, a symbol of its destruction but also a pioneer in harm reduction and progressive drug policy. All week we've been looking at how we got here, what we need to do to fix the crisis, and meeting the frontline workers keeping users safe. But so often in talking about the damage of addiction we miss the humanity that drives it. So we spent a day in the DTES talking to the people whose lives are most impacted by the opiate crisis.

Eryk, 33

Former Tent City

Heroin found me through a friend I was doing blow with about 12 or 13 years ago. I snorted it just for the sheer thing of trying something new. Doing an opiate for the first time, no one enjoys it, I projectile vomited the first time. Who goes back to doing it after an experience like that? That's what's always puzzled me. The addict personality, it's just who we are.

Jeannette, 24


I was 19. I was living at home, I just finished school. Growing up it was really lonely, I was depressed. I went looking for it. I've always been attracted to the idea of it, I don't know. I started injecting. I had a friend from high school, he did every drug under the sun. He showed me how. He's dead now. I've gone to rehab seven times this year. When people say, 'when you want to get clean you'll get clean' it implies that if I fail I didn't want it enough. It's so hard to put myself through the hell of withdrawal. You're kind of powerless in the whole situation. Addiction is more complicated than I ever could have imagined.

Les, 53

Grand Union Hotel on Hastings

I started using opiates in the hospital with Vicodin. I had a torn cartilage in my left leg. I was in a lot of pain then and the opiates took the pain away and made me feel real good. I hadn't realized it had turned into a problem till I got out of the hospital and I couldn't get anymore. Then I started injecting when I was 17, 18. I always had food on the table, I had parents who were always working. It was my problem. It was my problem. Nothing to do with my parents, it was with me. A very good friend of mine recently OD'd. He got out of jail and knew nothing about fentanyl. And then he died in his bed.

Bradley, 49

Abbott Street outside the Saloma

I've been using since I was 38. My wife died. She died. I had nine years clean from a crack habit and then that happened. My current wife does fentanyl. She just OD'd recently. What's gonna help us down here? We just need more support from each other.

James, 22

Alley behind The Balmoral

I started using when I was 17. My parents split up and my mom died shortly after that. So I started opiates. The town where I lived, it was too easy to get. I bought 20 dollars worth of heroin. And I really liked it. I tried it once and got hooked cause it cured all my feelings. I snorted it. I started injecting at 19. I injected oxy, and that was the first thing I injected. And it was amazing. After that you can't go back. Your tolerance goes way up and that rush, you never get it again. It's like … your body remembers. My goal is to be drug-free in a couple of years. I don't wanna do it forever.

Shya, 34

100 block East Hastings

I've been on the Downtown Eastside for four years. I came from Alberta. I lost my sister in Alberta and I just, I started to leave, I started to come to Vancouver. I gave up. I started using then. I OD'd a month ago at the Balmoral. I'm worried about fentanyl, yeah. I carry a Naloxone kit with me everywhere now.

Keith, 34

The Empress Hotel (Hastings between Main and Gore)

I started using heroin ten years ago. I was doing coke at the time and for whatever reason couldn't get it that night and yeah I had talked to a buddy who I worked with and I knew he was wired to something but I didn't know what exactly. So I was talking to him and ended up getting some down that night. I just tried it for basically lack of the drugs that I wanted. I had just moved to Canada from the US, had been deported. I didn't know anybody in Canada and yeah I was going through just a lot of stress. I've been in and out of recovery for a long time. My first narcotics anonymous meeting was at 19 when I lived in the States and you know I was in a room that was just—I couldn't relate to any of the people. It seems like I just went to the wrong group, middle aged folks, I was 19 they—yeah totally unrelatable even their stories with drugs it just didn't—I couldn't connect. I'm not really interested in seeking out recovery right now. You know I don't feel like there's—I mean I know there are options but do I wanna wait around—until—you know a bed opens up in the place I wanna go?

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