VANCOUVER—The sun illuminates the south side of the street of East Hastings on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, coating the facades of some of the oldest buildings in the city with warm rays. The north side’s buildings, meanwhile, have blocked out the brightness, leaving the sidewalk dark and cold.
Whether in the sun or shadow, both sides of this strip of the city are busy playing host to large groups congregating on the sidewalk and others trying to navigate quickly through the clumps of people.
This neighbourhood’s troubles are no secret in Canada. The Downtown Eastside (DTES) has long been in the news over stories related to drug addiction, poverty and the challenges they bring.
This week marked the sixth anniversary of the declaration of the fentanyl epidemic, which has taken a particularly ruthless toll on these streets and alleys. Across the province, 9,400 people have died from overdoses during the crisis, according to the province’s chief coroner.
But while the challenges of the DTES march on, one federal government service has said it doesn’t want any part of these two blocks, at least for the time being.
On March 23, Canada Post suspended its delivery of mail from the 0 and 100 block of East Hastings over “health and safety” concerns for postal workers.
“It is our responsibility to ensure that our employees, who visit hundreds of addresses every day, can deliver mail and parcels safely,” said Canada Post’s Valérie Chartrand in a statement.
“When there is a situation at a delivery location that is unsafe for our employees, we work with the customer or property management to resolve the issue and resume regular service as soon as possible.”
Residents now must go more than two kilometres away to a postal centre to collect their mail.
Some in the area want to know why.
Tanya Fader is the director of housing at PHS Community Services Society, an agency providing a number of services, including housing, to those in a variety of difficult situations.
While crowds seem to have swelled on the sidewalks in the area recently, Fader said she and her co-workers walk through them without issue every day. Now, the mail suspension means many of the people in the area can’t get important mail, including paycheques.
“It just seems really unfair to me that our folks who are already marginalized and already struggle with so many things would then not get this essential service,” she said.
Fader said it’s the second time Canada Post has suspended service in the neighbourhood, the first was in 2020 over COVID-19 safety concerns.
Canada Post’s list of service disruptions on its website shows dozens of “red alert” disruptions going back to November 2021. A red alert means service has been suspended, but the suspensions seen on the list by the Star were due to some form of weather event. A handful of the red alerts were related to a snowstorm in Vancouver late last year, but the suspension in the DTES is not listed on the sheet.
Canada Post did not provide anyone for an interview or detail what the health and safety concerns are. A report by Vancouver’s local CTV newsroom said workers had complained of seeing open drug use and being verbally abused. For now, the mail won’t go through. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers did not respond to a request for comment.
Fader said her organization has arranged to have mail for their addresses in the suspended area dropped off at another building nearby, but said it’s not a long-term solution. She said while someone not from the area could be a bit uneasy about being in the neighbourhood, a solution must be found.
“Yes, if you’re not used to it, it wouldn’t be the most pleasant thing,” she said. “I can see how some people, if they’re not used to it, would feel unsafe. I would say then they need to assign someone who is more comfortable doing that because mail is an essential service.”
While the neighbourhood has long been troubled, others who are there on a daily basis say nothing has changed to make it any more precarious than its ever been.
Emily Luba works for a non-profit in the area and says it’s “incredibly discriminatory” to suspend service to the neighbourhood.
“It’s frustrating for people to be denied an essential service for no reason other than their post code,” she said, adding that the interruption especially hurts people with mobility issues waiting on cheques from the government.
Luba said she hasn’t noticed any changes in the safety of the area lately and was “shocked and upset” when she found out about the mail interruption through a Facebook post.
“It just seemed very random,” she said.
Vancouver city Coun. Jean Swanson, a longtime advocate for the area’s residents, said she’s asked city staff to examine the issue.
“People in the Downtown Eastside should be able to get their mail like everybody else,” Swanson said, “and people should be safe, so let’s see if we can work on something that fulfils both of those objectives.”
With files from Lex Harvey
Jeremy Nuttall is a Vancouver-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports