Struggle for Economic Freedom: Mythbusting Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Street Market
Daniel Mundeva is a MA student at SFU and a Team Member with the Local Economic Development Lab, an initiative of Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS SFU. For two semesters, Daniel is working with the DTES Street Market, helping them with their income generating projects and strengthening their relationship with other organizations and businesses in the DTES.
Many of us in Canada think of freedom struggles as something that affects only people in other countries. If you think everyone has the freedom to get a job, become an entrepreneur, or use whatever talent they have to better their lives; think again. If you live in Vancouver, it will only take you a short trip to the Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighbourhood to see many people struggling just to survive. Survival vending is one way that many in this neighbourhood partake in just to try and make ends meet.
I ask for two minutes of your time to explore with me the struggles that vendors at the DTES Street Market have to endure on a daily basis. Let’s get one thing clear before I proceed: I am talking about registered vendors who partake in legal, organized vending and not street vending that takes place on the sidewalks of Hastings St. These vendors can be found at 62 East Hastings (Mon-Friday), 501 Powell Street (Saturday) and Pigeon Park (Sundays).
Survival vending is what many people in this neighbourhood have turned to as welfare rates do not meet even the most basic of needs. Consider living in the costliest city in North America and having $610 to spend per month! The government budgets $375/month on rent and $235/month on other needs like food, transportation, clothing, entertainment, medication, etc. Even the worst rooms in this neighbourhood cost on average $450 – and many tenants choose the streets over these cramped, unsanitary spaces (take a look at this article about single room residencies (SROs) in the DTES. Be sure to watch the 2-minute video too). I will let you figure out how to live on $235 (or I could further subtract $124 for a monthly 2-zone transit pass to leave you with $111 per month for food, medication, clothing, entertainment, etc.).
I recently took a graduate student internship position with Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS SFU to support efforts by residents of the DTES working hard to earn an extra buck. The systemic and societal hurdles against the resolute efforts by many individuals have taken me by surprise. The DTES Street Market Society is operated and governed by residents of this highly stigmatized neighbourhood. The project coordinators, board members and volunteers are people who rely on social assistance (it doesn’t get any more local or more grassroot than this). Despite the personal, social and systemic challenges they face, these residents have proved resilient and what the organization has achieved is a testament to their ability and potential to succeed. The Sunday market at Pigeon Park, which is the organization’s core investment, has, among other things, been able to provide over $500,000 per year to the most marginalized people of the DTES, remove over 20 tonnes of waste annually from landfills, and create almost 6000 hours per year for volunteers who receive a small stipend.
Below I highlight just two of many myths this organization continues face. These misconceptions are not only disrespectful of these efforts for economic freedom but also impact the growth of the market.
Myth #1: It is a “junk market”
Regardless of the efforts and success of the market, there is still this negative tale being told by a few from the “outside” community. Some have gone as far as to calling the market a “junk market.” This is a large misconception. Like other flea markets and street markets around the world, the DTES Street Market has many good quality, affordable treasures. Like other markets, you can often meet the creators of the products you buy, particularly if you are looking for arts and crafts by local First Nations.
Media coverage has often used images that portray a negative image of the market. Check out this photo comparison showing coverage from the Vancouver Sun (left) compared to what most shoppers experience (right):
Myth #2: Everything at the DTES Street Market is stolen
Another myth about the market is that everything sold there is either illegal or stolen. However, the DTES Street Market Society is doing all it can to ensure that all the goods that are sold at the market were acquired legally. These efforts include practicing what I may call an “open-door” policy with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and the community as a whole: the VPD is always welcome and almost always present at the market. All vendors at the DTES Street Market are registered with the DTES Street Market Society and must wear a badge at all times while selling goods at the market. Moreover, trained volunteers patrol the market at all times. These volunteers assist both customers and vendors with market-related queries.
Fact: A dedicated group of legal vendors
My work with the DTES Street Market Society has shown me just how dedicated the vendors are to getting themselves out of abject poverty. Weekly early-morning meetings for the board (usually at 8am), endless negotiations with other stakeholders, and collecting goods (often from bins) throughout the city are just some of the efforts these individuals put in to lift themselves from poverty and economic dependence. Too often when the poor come together towards a mutual goal, they are doubted as plotting something against the law. When they try to sell something, it is quickly thought of as either stolen or just illegal.
Putting barriers against the poorest of the poor is an ugly form of discrimination which should not be tolerated in our society. Instead, when we see the poor and those struggling with issues like mental health and addiction working hard to emancipate themselves, we should rise up with them, encourage them and support them in every way possible. You can support the DTES Street Market by adding it to the places you shop. If you are a thrift shopper, treasure hunter, or someone who likes to connect with artists, the DTES Street Market is a place for you.