“the screws knew what they were doing…”
“Staff were separated physically from the residents, and this design appeared so authoritarian and institutional looking that one of the buildings had been recently used as a film set for the interior of a police station. In fact, several of the buildings in the study, because of their setting, design and appearance, had been recently used as film sets for law-and-order television shows, while a former DTES detention center was in the process of being converted into social housing for low-income and at-risk populations.”
-Boyd et al., “Supportive Housing and Surveillance”
For two years I was a support worker in the Downtown East Side. One of those was spent working a graveyard line in a building recently renovated by BC Housing. Work such as this has become a defacto rite of passage for a certain class of socially optimistic millennial living in Vancouver. Utopian vision of equality and/or a savior complex mixed with the energy of youth to carry you through secondary trauma and exhaustion.
John Hillcoat’s 1989 debut feature film Ghosts of the Civil Dead is a fictional ethnography of a Kafkaesque prison in the middle of the Australian desert - an institution named the Central Industrial Prison (CIP). It’s a document of the violent unrest which put the facility in an indefinite “permanent lockdown.” CIP’s warden describes the calculated application of administrative stress (“it should be closer to the wall…”) that push staff and prisoners to break any unique social dynamics and adaptive structures through which some decorum may exist. Hillcoat’s dystopic vision of the process by which privatization of prisons dehumanize the people inside and out of their walls, illustrates the circular logic of the carceral state: The structures of capitalism replicate themselves on a global market, and the individual embodiment of its values are reinforced by the institutions of its society.
Stepping out of my home. Stepping out into morning for my shift of sleep. Bleary eyed. My mind stayed behind in the facility as my body staggered to bed, my consciousness tethered the two ever stretching, pulling my body tenser and tighter despite the absence of danger. I’m in too much pain to sleep. Smoke a joint, take a muscle relaxant and watch a film. The harsh blue backlight of my laptop’s screen is an almost comforting beacon for my dissociated brain. Easing my mind back to my body and relieving tension. The hard drive hums and between the pot and pills my body can relax and release my wandering mind.
Recognize CIP’s even, fluorescent lighting. It’s long, drab hallways. Feel the heavy doors and the synthetic building materials;is associated from any natural matter – clinical, but easy to clean.
It saw myself and my coworkers in the prison staff. Oblivious to, or complicit in, the predatory subcultures and economies among the prison population. Powerless to intervene, but far too comfortable observing the violence and abuse from the safety of their control stations.
“Civil death is an ancient Roman conviction in which felons would be stripped of civil rights upon conviction.” I fall asleep at 10:30 having beckoned my mind back to myself with Ghosts. I dream about work and my teeth are grinding. Waking up at 19:00 ready to go home.
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Mate’s now lauded account of addiction treatment, tracks the neoliberal health care continuum that interpolates drug users as “risk communities” in the DTES. Gabor hilights not only the civil death of drug users, but the dehumanizing language and rhetoric commonly used to describe the DTES and its residents – which precludes death, erases suffering, and absolves responsibility.
“Everybody’s selling something in here…”
Ghosts of the Civil Dead
The following dossier is literature I cited researching the mechanics of the policies of my work in its political and spatial context. Vancouver’s housing crisis, Canada’s Federal ideological transition from hard right conservatism to beaming neoliberalism, the storied past of activism in the Downtown East Side and the Opioid Crisis.
Why did I relate so much to CIP’s warden, despite my predilection for leftist politics and prison abolition? How did I so deeply sympathize with the warden? What aspects of my life related to his own so deeply?
The intent of this work is to critique the state structures which force community members to action to account for its failures, and its congratulatory rhetoric which obfuscates “surveillance and control […] masked within a nexus of care” (Boyd et al. 2016. pg. 77.) and compassion. However while this work questions the nature of agency within Neoliberalized health care structures, it is crucial to emphasize that mine is a perspective of privilege from a distance. It is unfair not to recognize the life-saving work of the drug using community in the DTES for the incredible fortitude it requires on the part of the unsupported individuals living, surviving, and saving lives amid the Opioid Crisis. To characterize those who intervene in overdose and work at injection sites or needle exchanges as unwitting pawns in a grand scheme of the state is dehumanizing and disrespectful, not to mention classist. In fact, those people are acutely aware of their position, and had been long before this work had begun.“Neoliberalizing Space” by Jamie Peck and Adrian Tickell. [Antipode, 34 (3), 380-404.] Offers the structural and historical analysis of “roll out” Neoliberalism. A late stage of the project marked by “[…] deliberate stretching of […] policy repertoire (and its associated rhetoric) to embrace a range of extramarket forms of governance and regulation” to account for the failures of deregulation to strengthen the market. Roll Out Neoliberalism can at once appear benevolent and progressive while actively disassociating the state, and its subjects, from their own lives and human relations, to roles within the market. Among strictly economic measures, the roll-out stage also manipulates the social values and dynamics of societies: by co-opting “‘community’ and non-market metrics, establishment of social-capital discourses and techniques, the incorporation (and underwriting) of local governance and partnership-based modes of policy development and program delivery in areas like urban regeneration and social welfare […]”
The discursive transfer of political initiative to personal value is a direct result of this rhetoric and the structures they inform. “Harm Reduction as Paradigm: Is better than bad good enough?” by Gordon Roe [Critical Public Health, (2005) 15 (3), 243-250], in tandem with “The Social Logic of Naloxone: Peer administration, harm reduction, and the transformation of social policy” by Rachel Faulkner-Gurstein [Social Science & Medicine, (2017) 180, 20-27.] reveals how harm reduction has become an outsourcing tool for Neoliberal policymakers. Offloading medical services to specific populations as a means of regulation. Categories such as “high risk” and “hard to reach” become less a demarcation of a state of physical health, but a means by which to “create ‘communities’ whose identity and purpose is to regulate itself according to that classification.” Through narratives of “community” and “personal empowerment,” individuals delegated to these subject positions who are physically and mentally able to intervene in overdose on behalf of the state are valorized. Rhetorical gestures create a separate class inside risk communities, assigning social capital and celebrating “empowerment […] of those who can organize themselves into appropriately ‘healthy’ endeavors.” Roe’s introduction of the concept of prudentialism is the extension of the Roll Out project to health care. Despite structural inequities that lead to social marginalization or poverty, and the subsequent effects on health, the onus is on the individual to provide “self-care.”
When marginalized peoples cannot embody the values of individualism, their dissection from the body politic is imperative. A harm reduction program that “decentralizes authority and redistributes accountability towards individuals and self-organized communities” in conjunction with the criminalizing policies and social control of supportive housing – as described in Residential Tenancy Branch Dispute 2621 – are the means to this end. What this means on the ground is that these facilities, managed by provincial health and housing authorities, are the only option for individuals trying to survive on income assistance. “Supportive Housing and Surveillance” by Jane Boyd et. al. [The International Journal on Drug Policy, (2016) 34, 72-79] exposes the dissonance between the value assignment of coveted civilian hero, and the lived experience of drug users. It pulls the mask from the Neoliberal façade of progressive policy. Revealing the spatial restrictions of supportive housing residents, institutional ties between social support and police, and a culture among building staff which reinforces these prison-like living conditions as normal and justified. Clarifying the object of valorizing narratives in Neoliberalized harm reduction. Within this lived experience of disempowerment and social control, celebratory gestures by state actors do not designate respect or admiration for the brave and selfless efforts of drug users to save their relations. They are merely a managerial acknowledgement of self-management, and an affirmation of the success of their larger Neoliberal project.
The DTES is a testament to the fluidity of Neoliberalism. Appropriation of harm reduction by provincial service providers to segregate a “community” (as defined by prudentialist modes of accountability) from state support is engendered by Neoliberal rhetoric and statecraft, but is no means the only way structural disempowerment occurs in marginalized populations. August Martine’s highly readable chronicle of a Toronto communities struggle against market invasion in Negotiating Social Mix in Toronto’s First Public Housing Redevelopment: Power, space and social control in Don Mount Court Gentrification [Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38 (4), 1160-1680] is integral for understanding social mix ideology. The parallels between Don Mount Court and the DTES’ “redevelopment” are remarkable. The interruption of demographics through financialization, and introducing market participants into communities create power imbalances which put previous residents of these communities at a serious disadvantage. “Can the Lunatics Actually Take Over the Asylum? Reconfiguring Subjectivity and Neoliberal Governance in Contemporary British Drug Treatment Policy” by J.E. Zibbell [International Journal of Drug Policy, (2004) 15, 56-65] further articulates the disenfranchisement of stigmatized groups from political engagement. Factors such as contradictory, precarious subject positions of drug users – “expert patients” capable of their own care and “responsible use” while still being criminalized for their “addiction.” As well as the impact of factors such as “regulations of conduct” like professionalism. Standards created by the hegemony which favor able bodied and neurotypical individuals – delegitimizing variations of ability and encouraging divisive self-policing within marginalized groups.
The boosters of Neoliberal policies force communities facing a deadly health crisis to manage their own fatalities. With a pat on the back and smile on their face the collaborative efforts of Provincial housing/health/law enforcement agencies upholds and reinforce Vancouver’s carceral apparatus. As residents are manipulated to become paramedics, I was a cop. Proudly. The cringe and disgust we felt when the VPD abused residents did not return when we enforced policies which violated those same resident’s rights as tenants. This relationship is integral for understanding the history of the DTES, as well as the present situation we find ourselves in.
I fear in disseminating this work I’ll be considered some type of low-rent authority on the subject. A Christ on a cross, struggling with my complicity in the carceral apparatus. My use to this endeavor for justice is only as far the articulation of my experience as a support worker. Still subjective, though I fall inside a large demographic of those entering this entry level position – middle class, optimistic, left leaning, a desire to “help,” inexperienced (save for some vocabulary to articulate my open mindedness).
The models of supportive housing/harm reduction push a narrative of survival and dignity. They argue that the services they provide are fundamental to clients – their benevolence in allowing people to live as they choose to. Without them, the resident’s time will be brutish and short. There is no doubt that the relationships between workers and residents are paternalistic. The culture is often toxic, fostering oppositional relations between staff and the building populations. New hires such as myself are often ignorant to the litany of factors which have affected people’s lives, the complexity of the bureaucracy which dictates their livelihood and bodily sovereignty, and our own position of authority.
As the residents are worn down by economic poverty and medical precarity, so too is our optimism and belief in a future. Our success was measured in the changes residents made to their lives which reflected the ideal citizenship of “Canada.” Never mind contentment. Expectations unmet, some of us became resentful. Relationships with clients went from warm and friendly to tired or cold. I was ill equipped to cope with complexity of my position or accept the complexity of resident’s lives.
Navigating my privilege- confidentiality- boundaries- humility- as I was encouraged to form relationships and embody the savior these people supposedly needed. So often I couldn’t rationalize the push back against these efforts and the policies I enforced – these policies which I had to tell myself were for their own good.
The carceral housing of British Columbia serves to relegate its clients to a designated space in which they may “survive” in perpetuity. It posits the results of cyclical, structural oppression as evidence of this determinist assertion, and offers few, if any, tools for clients to organize for their own interests.
I didn’t have the vision to see past this horizon for the clientele I was responsible for. I think I imagined that because I sat in the position I did – on the frontlines in close proximity to residents, removed from the bureaucracy we all struggled with – my role was exempt from the others which oppressed the clients I worked for.
The movie is over, I think I’m in bed. Home doesn’t mean much. My mind wanders unsure of the architecture it’s exploring now – blurred by fatigue and substances.
It’s difficult to see the totality of a structure you are within.
-Jakob Knudsen, 2018