If this was Calcutta you’d think Mother Teresa. If it was a place by the river in old Montreal, you’d think Suzanne who shows you how to act amidst the garbage and the flowers.
In Vancouver, think Ann Livingston. Until I met her I didn’t think it was possible for rage to co-exist with anything, let alone tenderness.
Ann is taking us down to a place by East Hastings. For some reason, she’s pushing a shopping cart. Everyone seems to know her. Stopping for a chat. Checking in. Asking for help.
We are headed toward the pop-up safe injection site that she and a few others created because the healthcare system was too slow to respond to Vancouver’s current fentanyl crisis. It’s just a few tents in an alleyway. All winter an extension cord to the building next door provided electricity. We arrive as another person is brought back to life with naloxone administered by the volunteers who staff it. 600 people a day use the facility. It is no understatement to say the place is life giving. Many would be dead if it didn’t exist.
If you knew who and what Ann knew you’d be outraged too. She’s learned a lot from a couple of decades of activism in the area. These are her friends and acquaintances who are overdosing. She knows them at their most intimate and human. Which is why she needed a shopping cart. It contains a big bowl of strawberries and a carafe of coffee. “After all who doesn’t like strawberries,” Ann says with a smile.
Ann helped create VANDU, (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) the largest organization of drug users (and former users) in North America, maybe in the world. Its mandate is to: increase the capacity of people who use drugs to live healthy productive lives… by affirming and strengthening people who use drugs to reduce harm to themselves and their communities.
VANDU became a key player in ending Vancouver’s ‘killing fields,’ the drug overdose crisis of the 1990’s. VANDU also helped establish Insite, for years the only safe injection site in North America.
Then fentanyl arrived and people started dying in even greater numbers. Ann had no choice but to respond. Thus a makeshift safe injection site in an alleyway. For this kind of ingenuity, others get awards, prizes and a steady stream of grants. Sadly that’s not the case for Ann and VANDU.
Give her a chance to talk and she seethes with insight, analysis and impatience. Ann is not always easy to listen to, especially for those of us who consider ourselves ‘helpers.’ We like to think that we’ve thought of everything. Then again there is no delicate way to say or hear, what she has to say.
Besides, Ann saves her tenderness and her strawberries for her friends and neighbours.
Want to know more about Ann and the work of VANDU read these articles by Travis Lupick of the Georgia Strait.
To donate to VANDU please send to: Glasshouse Capacity Services, 131 Water St., Vancouver BC V6B 4M3. For more info call: 604-687-4357 or 604-684-5173
I sing my sorrow and I paint my joy. (Joni Mitchell)
Musical accompaniment this post is Where Will I Be by Daniel Lanois. With lines like this one it should be an urban classic. “The streets are cracked and there’s glass everywhere.”