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In The Field: Travis Lupick

 The Downtown Eastside is arguably the country’s most visible example of the human cost of Canada’s opioid abuse. Travis Lupick explains how he teamed up with Amanda Seibert to take readers and viewers to the streets to tell the story of an embattled community struggling to help – and heal – itself.


 

The Georgia Straight's in-depth report on British Columbia's overdose epidemic explored how a shadow health-care system developed in response to the fentanyl crisis and showcased how an impoverished community rallied to take care of itself.

B.C. Coroners Service statistics show that from 2010 to 2011, illicit-drug overdose deaths across the province jumped by more than a third. In more recent years, that pace continued unabated. There were 368 fatal overdoses in 2014, then 518 in 2015, and then 935 in 2016.

And yet it wasn’t until December 2016 that the B.C. government intervened. That month, it finally took drastic action, establishing more than 15 overdose-prevention sites across B.C. to give addicts relatively safe spaces where they could use drugs. (Six months later, no one has died at any of these sites.)

But by December 2016, residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside had given up on the government and had taken matters into their own hands. Activists were operating two illegal injection sites they pitched under tents in back alleys; the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users dispatched foot patrols to monitor people using drugs in the streets; the Portland Hotel Society launched similar teams operating on bicycles; and inside the neighbourhood’s beat-up hotels, tenants posted signs on their doors letting people know they had a supply of naloxone and were available should an overdose occur. 

It was a community response that occurred almost entirely without the support of government.

To understand how the neighbourhood continued to struggle with the arrival of fentanyl, two of the Straight’s journalists, myself and videographer Amanda Siebert, spent considerable time in the community over a period of three months. We spent many hours in the Downtown Eastside's back alleys, building connections with drug users that resulted in a unique level of access to a world that's seldom shared with the general public. 

We hung around supervised-injection facilities so that we could witness drug overdoses and report on how staff responded to those incidents. And we entered the Downtown Eastside's dilapidated hotels and met residents there who were living in poverty, but acting as de facto first responders, filling in where B.C.'s health-care system had failed. 

This story did not so much begin with an idea as it did with circumstance. I was living in the Downtown Eastside, and could not ignore how the overdose epidemic intensified through the winter of 2016. 

There were overdoses to step around on my walk to the bus in the morning and on the street outside my apartment that I saw upon arriving home at the end of the day. Siebert was doing an interview on the sidewalk in early-December and her conversation was interrupted by someone calling for help with an overdose just ten feet away. It began to feel like people were falling everywhere and all the time. It became obvious that the subject of how this community was coping with so much trauma was worthy of an in-depth report.

Consisting of 3,000 words and six short videos, this project shared people’s tragedies and portrayed unflattering aspects of many individuals’ lives in great detail. It could not have come together without investing significant time, often outside of office hours, in establishing trust and building relationships. This required many meetings with people—volunteers working at the unsanctioned-injection sites, for example—where the goal was not to gather quotes but rather to simply talk and get to know people. 

It also involved some rejection; not everybody who was approached wanted to discuss their drug use, or recount the memory of a friend who had passed away. But we found that after a brief exchange, even those people who did not want to be included in the project were often ready to offer some form of assistance, or a connection to someone else who did want to be more involved.  

By combining text with video, we hoped to present readers and viewers with the true sense of urgency that residents of the Downtown Eastside were feeling. While words explained the tragedy and turmoil many faced on a daily basis, our multimedia pieces were succinct, yet impactful, and provided readers with the personal accounts of six individuals who dedicate their time and energy to saving lives in the Downtown Eastside. 

Upon publication, the response from readers was overwhelming. People donated money to the activists featured in the article, and several parents who had lost a child to a drug overdose wrote to ask how they could connect with people featured in the article who were struggling through similar situations. The article included the story of Janet Charlie, a woman on welfare who could not afford to pay for tombstones for her two sons. After reading about her ordeal, a Vancouver skateboard shop donated $3,000 to cover those costs. 

In the worst of circumstances, this article presented a misunderstood community in a highly positive light, sharing with the Straight's readers how the Downtown Eastside's residents take care of each other.

Travis Lupick and Amanda Siebert of the Georgia Straight won the 2016 McGillivray Award, A community response: How the worst overdose epidemic in Vancouver’s history left the Downtown Eastside to fend for itself. The duo also won the Community Media category

Travis Lupick is a journalist based in Vancouver. His first book is entitled Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City's Struggle with Addiction. 

Amanda Siebert is the cannabis editor at Georgia Straight, and a freelance photographer, journalist, and videographer.


 

The CAJ's In The Field series invites leading Canadian journalists to share the stories behind the making of their award-winning works. 

Have a journalist in mind that you'd like us to feature? Tell us: admin@caj.ca!

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