By Steve Frost, Community Relations Committee

It started with soap. When it became obvious that COVID-19 was a threat to the already vulnerable residents of the DTES, community advocates sent out an urgent call for help. They knew frequent hand washing was one of the most important ways to combat COVID-19, but how do you wash your hands if you don’t have soap? 

As an individual, I responded to that urgent call, not sure how I could help. One of the things I’ve learned at VJLS-JH is community resilience. This neighbourhood has taught me that in the face of an unprecedented threat, we get through it together. The folks on the first Zoom call were an ad hoc coalition of neighbourhood advocates who knew each other, but had not worked together. That ad hoc coalition became the DTES Response.

As each member spoke, it was clear that quick action was needed to address the escalating dire situation on the ground. The call for soap quickly evolved into an ambitious campaign to coordinate on the ground efforts and spearhead fundraising to ensure the crisis would not disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in our community. It was like building an airplane that had already taken off. 

Within days and in the midst of chaos, we had a name, a logo and a website and a manifesto based on collective, consensus-based collaboration. Communicating the neighbourhood situation in a conscious way without stigmatizing residents or the area was challenging.

As days passed, the situation on the ground grew worse. To protect employees, many social services and to reduce their capacity and close their spaces. Food was becoming scarce. To promote social distancing, SROs (single room occupancy hotels) stopped allowing visitors, which suddenly increased the unhoused population by one-third. When Carnegie Community Centre closed its doors, it meant a place of simple comfort and refuge was no longer available. Folks resorted to riding the bus just to have a place to sit. On top of all this, food was becoming scarce, folks had to line up on crowded sidewalks to get something to eat, making social distancing virtually impossible. 

The unfortunate reality is, social distancing and hand washing are a privilege. There are 15,000 people at risk in the DTES which include 3,000 who are unhoused and 4,700 at high risk in privately run SRO’s. Fortunately, this is a neighbourhood that understands resilience, we’ll get through this together. The broader Vancouver community has responded to this neighbourhood appeal represented by DTES Response. 

Caring folks have donated over $200,000. Masks & face shields have been delivered to front line workers. Small grants have been hand delivered to 20 front line organizations needing immediate support. And people have soap to wash their hands. Such a simple thing, but a reminder of the daily obstacles the most vulnerable among us face.  

In working with the DTES Response team, I have been nothing but proud of my association with VJLS-JH, its understanding of community resilience, and its response to neighbours in need. Our new ED, Darius Maze early on worked with a nearby non-profit that delivers meals to vulnerable residents to safely park their van in our parking garage. It was a small and simple support, but it is an example of the neighbourly threads that weave the social fabric of a resilient neighbourhood. 

Despite our own deep financial impacts from COVID, the willingness of our organization to help as we are able, draws on the rich history of our community, and the resulting abundance of community spirit that has been passed on and is now ours to share.    

If you’d like to tangibly help vulnerable neighbours, please head to www.dtesresponse.ca