Photo by C. Grabowski
After spending the past 13 years trying to save Vancouver’s poor from the filthy alleys of the Downtown Eastside, Ann Livingston doesn’t have a pension plan or any significant savings, but she has decided to quit her job.
Livingston, a star of the widely shown documentary Fix, has spent the last nine years co-ordinating the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), a non-profit operated by addicts. She’s done a lot to help drug users get their voices heard. But she says she is tired of Vancouver’s hypocrisy. While the host of the 2010 Olympics is termed the world’s “most liveable city” by The Economist magazine, its poorest neighbourhood grapples with an epidemic of HIV/AIDS comparable to Botswana’s.
After devoting more than a decade of her life helping people in the Downtown Eastside, Livingston says she hasn’t noticed improvements in living conditions or a decrease in the demand for aid. In fact, she says, things just seem to be getting worse.
“Yeah, people did change, but then they died,” Livingston remembers thinking to herself last spring. “I started to realize, I do leadership development with people who are very likely to die and there’s more dead people now that I’ve worked with than live people.”
She recalls a “critical incident” after watching a former VANDU board member try to kick in the office windows while yelling offences at her. She found herself breaking down at red lights, rationalizing that, because of her busy schedule, “now would be a good time to cry.”
That was when she decided she had to solve her own problems before taking on everyone else’s. She began imagining a new life “because I want to do something more powerful than being the crabby bitch at VANDU who yells at users.” She thinks she flies off the handle so much because, for too long, she’s put off grieving.
Day starts before dawn
Livingston’s thick grey hair sits smoothly across her shoulders. She frequently looks into the distance when she speaks. In jeans and a cotton T-shirt, she’s outspoken, but her mannerisms are almost shy. She keeps a respectful distance between herself and others.
Most days, she is up checking e-mails by four in the morning. “It’s mainly because I have trouble sleeping at night.” She works at the computer while balancing on a blue exercise ball to ward off back pain. Then she gets her four-year-old son ready and off to daycare in time to make it to VANDU for a long day of work.
As a single mother on welfare, Livingston moved to the Downtown Eastside with her three boys (four now) in 1993, and was moved to act by the sight of people shooting up and dying on the streets. She enrolled in a four-day course on community organizing. The workshop was run by a group from Nicaragua that shared its experience of starting a literacy campaign and a campaign to collect bottles for making tomato preserves.
She co-founded VANDU in 1998, Pivot Legal Society in 2000, and was a founding member of the Eastside Movement for Business & Economic Renewal Society board in 2001. Livingston also ran for city council three times “to bring the issues of homelessness, ill and criminalized citizens to city hall.” She attends city and police meetings and sits on countless harm reduction, prostitution awareness, economic and community development boards connected with people in the Downtown Eastside.
She does it, she says, because “You never know who you’re helping. It could be Christ himself.” Livingston, who converted from the Unitarian to Roman Catholic Church, cannot understand how anyone could see people starving, homeless and in need, and do nothing.
Harm reduction baby steps
Livingston believes community involvement is the cure for problems of addiction, homelessness and crime in her neighbourhood. It’s an absence of community that has lead to government programs that do little to address the problems of addiction and homelessness in the Downtown Eastside. Programs like the supervised injection site research project, Insite — that provides clean needles and medical and counselling services to users, overseeing about 600 injections every day — are really just the tip of the iceberg, she says.
There are approximately 12,000 injection drug users in Vancouver, one third of whom live in the Downtown Eastside.
Despite Vancouver’s reputation as a trend setter in harm-reduction policies, Livingston says the city needs more supervised injection sites, safe inhalation sites for crack smokers, and educational programs for users on how to use drugs safely and get clean. Before Insite opened its doors, she used her own money to start her own needle exchange program, doling out thousands of needles to users on the street.
Sitting in her two-bedroom apartment filled with hand-me-down children’s toys, VHS boxes and pasted-up slogans — “Hating someone is like burning down your own house to get rid of rats” — Livingston tells me she’s planning to post her job at VANDU as a job share. Someone will get half her salary to work alongside her for a while and eventually take over her position.
“I want to job share it first and then just ease out,” she said, “because I think job sharing is the most kind thing you could do to another person. And the thing is to find another person who, in a sense, can see the redemptive quality to suffering, because there’s a lot of challenges to working at VANDU.”
‘What do you get out of this?’
But how many people are there who want to work with drug users every day for all the right reasons?
As the only non-drug-user on the VANDU board of directors, Ann says she often feels like an outsider. “People ask: ‘What do you get out of this?'”
Livingston says she is tiring of the off-based criticism, and even threats, she attracts. A recent column in The Province newspaper described her as someone who might give needle injection demos to children.
She is also an outsider to other organizations that receive government funding. Unlike VANDU, these organizations are restricted from the amount of government lobbying they can do, even to the point of having their hands tied. Whereas, VANDU can lobby all it wants, but on a very tight budget.
Livingston, who is 52, is still energized by opportunities to speak to people around the world about harm reduction and affordable housing. She’s still working on setting up provincial, national and international drug user groups. And she says she doesn’t have any definitive plans, only a feeling that there must be another way to make a difference. The moment has arrived, she says, to take a look at “the sort of wasteland of my life.”
It’s time for Livingston to rescue herself, too.