I recently went searching on Documentary Heaven for films about Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and this is the first one I clicked on. Overall, I am ambivalent about this film, which can be viewed here: Streets of Plenty. On the one hand, I think the subject draws some valid conclusions about the reality of addiction and homelessness in this impoverished neighbourhood but, on the other hand, this whole thing sort of reads to me as a narcissistic attempt at social justice that detracts from the real issues.
Overall, I admire the intention of the film. It focuses on Kleider, a young university student, who sets out to live on the streets of the Downtown Eastside for a month in a plight to understand the experience of living in one of the most concentrated areas of drug use and poverty in North America. Most notably, Kleider seems driven to pursue this social experiment in the wake of the announcement of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games being held in Vancouver, as well as frequent media attention placing Vancouver on lists of the most desirable cities in the world. How can this city be called one of the best in the world when the Downtown Eastside is riddled with addiction, poverty, and homelessness? When you contrast the scenes of this destitute neighbourhood with the more common shining images of this coastal metropolis, it seems like the area around East Hastings really is the city’s dirty little secret. Additionally, as a university student, I can relate to the sentiment expressed by Kleider early in the film: many times I am only briefly caught up with real world issues before “that frail state of caring dissipates” and I again return to the tedium of academia, ultimately doing nothing to address the issues I so intently study.
However, for most of the film, I found the commentary provided by Kleider to be arrogant, slanted, and unenlightening. For a third of his social experiment, Kleider practically lives in the lap of luxury, making homelessness seem a hell of a lot easier than the harsh reality that I imagine when I think of living on the street. He receives comfortable housing, stylish clothing, filling meals, and even recreation facilities — all for free. Scenes of this supposedly easy transition to homelessness are interspersed with commentary from Dr. Kurt Preinsburg, a philosopher who claims that extensive social programming and subsidized housing only compel people to be lazy and live off the public fund. Perhaps the point of this is to show that Vancouver is doing a lot better than many other Canadian cities when it comes to addressing the issue of homelessness, but really, it just seems to trivialize the struggle of those who are actually living on the street.
In an effort to make his time in the Downtown Eastside a bit more difficult, Kleider switches to sleeping outside. Okay, so he tried to make his experience a bit more authentic. But this segment features him explaining to the audience how easy it is to commit welfare fraud by receiving a fake diagnosis of mental illness. I mean, maybe that is an issue that merits a critical analysis, but I am of the belief that hyper-regulating access to social supports will leave far more people without the support that they need than it will prevent crooks from receiving money that they don’t deserve.
Kleider doesn’t seem to get around to the real point of the film until the final third of his social experiment. After realizing that addiction is the common thread that unites everyone living in this neighbourhood, he decides that he needs to try hard drugs in order to understand their lure and comprehend how these substances can lead people into such dire circumstances. While I can understand what he was going for, it seems like trying crack once as a documentary ploy pales in comparison to the actual cycle of addiction in which people live and die by this stuff. (Although, it is quite telling that the experience is coming down from heroin is what ultimately drives him to abandon the project and return to his comfortable home.)
However, as much as his experimentation with drugs annoyed me, this is where he comes to the real meat of the film. As he is told by the woman who helps him smoke crack for the first time:
It’s an addiction. Getting off Hastings is as hard as getting off crack, right? Hastings is a drug in itself.
Further, interspersed interviews with urban health researchers provide interesting insight into the experience of addiction. As Dr. Thomas Kerr explains:
The addictive liability of these drugs is evident in how much health-related harm and suffering people are willing to endure as a result of their drug use. People think that simply throwing more police and throwing people in jail will actually deter people from seeking that reward of their high. If you’re willing to die from the high, well, going in jail isn’t going to stop it either.
So that’s that, then. There’s the nugget. As Kleider puts it in his closing commentary:
What did I find? Life on the street is easy when you’re healthy, clean, and living off all the free services. But the street catches up with you and when you’re sick and on drugs, it’s a nightmare. The only difference is that I was able to wake up from it.
Due to that conclusion, ultimately, I do not think that Kleider completely misses the mark with this film. While some of his commentary seems arrogant and slanted, he does come around to draw some valid learning from his experience. However, I am confident that he did not need to carry out this social experiment in order to come to those conclusions. He did not need to masquerade as a homeless person, taking services from people who legitimately need them, in an attempt to learn more about his city. In particular, he certainly did not need to, as he says, “steal this homeless guy’s shit” in order to survive on the streets. This point is driven home when, towards the end of the film, he abandons his experiment five days early and simply returns to his posh apartment in West Vancouver. He always had a way out; he was never stuck on the streets and, given that fact, there is no way to justify the fraud and theft he committed for the sake of social experimentation. In an interview with CBC Radio, Kleider is asked about this ethical dilemma and responds with a “the ends justify the means” argument. I heartily disagree.
Instead, I would prefer to watch a documentary that elevates the voices of the people who actually live in the Downtown Eastside. It seems that many pieces on this topic focus on interviewing key experts — researchers, health professionals, and service providers — rather than inquiring into the opinions of the people who are actually trapped in this dismal reality. While many news stories and documentaries easily dismiss these people as “junkies,” I have had many enlightening conversations with people experiencing addiction and homelessness (not in Vancouver, but in my own city). I want to hear their stories, augmented with insight from experts on this topic; I do not need the contrived life story of a rich white guy who decided to fake homelessness for a month.