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Urban Systems partners struck by efforts for a more inclusive DTES

Eastside Stride participants urge others to engage and learn more

Editor’s Note: This is the conclusion to a two-part series shedding light on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) — an area often characterized as a place to avoid. This story delves into the personal experiences of Urban Systems partners following their participation in the “Eastside Stride” guided walking tour of the DTES. Part 1 of the series highlighted the growing awareness among businesses to participate in creating social impacts in the local community.

Senior engineer Brian Hobbs recalls having a very different experience while working around Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) in the 1970s as compared to his recent excursion through the area with 63 Urban Systems partners and staff for their 2013 AGM.

The attitude among planners in the ’70s was to gentrify the area without any concern for displacing residents, Brian says. But he’s discovered many groups and organizations that are committed to working with residents and making it a viable community.The large-scale Eastside Stride for Urban Systems’ AGM was sparked by the “Vibrant Vancouver” theme of this year’s meeting. After several iterations, a two-part walking tour was set with urban planners speaking at key stops from Coal Harbour to Science World. Once the large group reached Science World, they split into eight groups of eight people for the Eastside Stride – a public walking tour developed by Union Gospel Mission (UGM) in October 2012 to explore the rich history of Chinatown, Strathcona and the DTES, as well as the beauty and challenges that have affected it and its diverse inhabitants for many years.

The two-hour Eastside Stride walking tours are set to run every October during Homelessness Action Week. UGM recruits DTES residents who have gone through drug and alcohol recovery programs or who are dealing with homelessness and trains them as tour guides for the tour. Urban Systems partnered with UGM and provided funding to train additional guides so the tour could be incorporated into Urban Systems’ AGM last May.The guides led Urban Systems’ partners through the tour in a manner that was respectful of the DTES. They also shared personal experiences about how they came there, what they’ve accomplished and what support they’ve received. Several of them have gone on to regular employment.

“We wanted to show people vibrant community, but not keep it sterile or what we want it to look like, but how it really is,” says Urban Systems partner and co-planner of the walk, Tracy Rockwell.

“The biggest highlight for everybody was the part where we were in partnership with UGM,” she adds. “People were most impacted by the relationships they developed with the guides.” Tracy received feedback from many partners who – as a result of the walk – developed a tremendous and newfound respect for the services working in the area.

“One of the things that impressed me is that I have a new respect and interest for organizations like ASK Wellness Centre here in Kamloops, the Boyle Street Community Services Co-op and The Mustard Seed in Edmonton that try and help these folks in a more broad perspective starting from where they’re at,” says Brian, whose work focuses on the Kamloops region and Fort St. John. He especially notes the value of programs that take a comprehensive approach for long-lasting impacts with people they serve.

“Without a doubt, the impact of profound sharing from the guides about their own experiences and how closely related their experiences were to some of our lives really enabled people to relate,” Tracy says. “It had a profound impact and healing for many of our partners because there had been such a feeling of separation from the people of the DTES.”Brian echoed Tracy’s sentiments. “There are normal, hardworking people down there,” he says. “The tour demonstrated that the DTES is a whole community, not just the problems it is commonly known for.”

He urges other like-minded groups to consider what is a valuable, instructive and meaningful tour as a way to learn about and support the community.”I think that there’s quite a perception of fear of even going to that area and I think that there’s some interesting and good parts down there that could be supported simply by people going down there more frequently, even to grab lunch,” Brian says.

Tracy hopes the walk will inspire Urban Systems to take its work in providing services and infrastructure to the next level. “There are no throw away people. People mostly want the same thing – they want to feel accepted, possibly included; they want to feel like they matter,” she says.”I think Urban Matters is that. The Urban Matters platform is the way that we can integrate with the needs of vibrant communities and make a difference. It might not look like conventional engineering and planning work, but it’s what I think some aspects of our community are looking for,” she says.

Urban Systems launched Urban Matters in March 2013 as a way to create significant sustainable impact in communities through social enterprise. The opening story from this series provides more information on social ventures in the DTES.For more information or to sign up for one of this year’s Eastside Stride tours between Oct. 12-20, visit www.ugm.ca/haw/.

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