|Drug War Chronicle:
VANDU celebrated its 10th anniversary last month. How did the notion
of organizing drug users come about?
Ann Livingston: I had
recently moved to the Downtown Eastside and lived in a co-op housing unit
and was working with some quite radical people organizing welfare recipients.
I had also been involved in the community -- the Downtown Eastside Youth
Society board ran a needle exchange program, and I met people who were
serious about organizing there. And then I met Melissa Eror, who
put out a magazine called "Hype," and I was sort of taken aback that a
drug user was putting out a 'zine. I attended a lecture by Larry
Campbell -- that was when he was still the coroner -- and Melissa stood
up during the Q&A and said she had been using heroin for 20 years.
She was really out about her drug use! She spoke articulately about
it, and I had just taken an organizing course and I thought it was really
important to organize the drug users. We had our first meeting on
April 19, 1995. We spent about $100 for pizza and pop and we had
about 20 people show up for the first meeting.
Ann Livingston and colleagues at the VANDU office
It escalated pretty rapidly.
Remember, this was at a time when police were macing people they caught
shooting up, and this was happening while we had one of the highest drug
overdose rates in the world. We had 250 overdose deaths in the city
that year -- that number has dropped to about 80 last year. I used
a very neighborly style of organizing -- people knew my home phone number
and address -- and the meetings morphed into us getting an $8,000 grant
from a Vancouver foundation. Much to their shock and dismay, we used
it to rent the cheapest storefront we could find in the Downtown Eastside,
and that became our first office. We would do two meetings a week,
one for users and one for volunteers.
These are people who had
never been asked what they think will solve these problems, so you try
to get them to talk more than you. We went around the room with each
person saying his piece: What would a drug user group do? What
would you like to get out of this group? These are people who have
been penned up for years in windowless rooms and prison cells; they've
had time to think, and they don't suffer from the sense that they've been
treated justly. I don't have to convince them there's a problem.
And you learn some insights.
There were people who said, "I never got a police beating I didn't deserve."
What?! Who believes that? Someone who's been beaten by the
police repeatedly. That's not something middle-class people expect
or accept. And when I hear that, I bring the police in and ask them
to comment, and they say, "Oh, no, that's not proper policing," and all
the drug users get to hear the cops say that. There is consciousness
raising going on.
Chronicle: How did
you get drug users to become part of the process?
Livingston: My organizing
training taught me that you have to listen to the people and let them tell
you what the issues are. I would take tons of notes and try to boil
down the issues, like police harassment, no place to go, treatment at the
hospital, and then I would ask them, "Am I right? Is that what you
meant?" That's where an organizer has work to do. Once the
issues were identified, it was a matter of being heard. At first
it was just going to police board meetings -- and it took a year before
a drug user would come with me! But then, if anyone had a meeting
on anything, we were there. A new neighborhood action plan seeking
comment? We were there. A hearing at the health board about
a problem at the hospital? We were there. We would come in
with a bunch of drug users -- making sure everyone had eaten first and
coming together as a group -- and they do look like addicts. But
they speak honestly and thoughtfully and from the heart. And it was
great. They would come to meetings with me, and then finally, the
first user would get up and speak. And then they just light up like
Christmas trees. At those health board meeting, those addicts talking
about their lives was a story, and the press was there. Pretty soon
we were in the media constantly.
And the public expression
of pain is subversive. Canadians are good people. If they knew
what was happening in the Downtown Eastside they would help us, so every
time there was an increase in overdose deaths, we would do a demo.
We had addicts saying, "My buddy died in my arms yesterday." It was
honest and heartfelt. My job was to get out of the way and figure
out how to let these voices be heard directly.
Chronicle: How do you
get people -- police, politicians, local businesses -- to respect what
many of them would consider a bunch of junkies?
Livingston: Our first
volunteer gig was patrolling the port-o-potties the city set up to stop
people from going to the bathroom in the alleys. Our people watched
them to make sure they didn't get vandalized. That was because of
another meeting I went to where the problem was being discussed and they
asked for people to help. We volunteered. That's the way you
begin to get respect, to move from being a criminalized drug addict to
someone articulate who is doing volunteer work to improve things in his
community. VANDU was a vehicle for that, and we did it with active
drug users, which presents its own problems. What do you do about
the people who will tweak? We tell them if they can't not use for
four hours, don't volunteer. People fought long and hard to get these
little bits of work, and community volunteers are very respected, so don't
screw it up. But through VANDU active drug users can and do volunteer.
If they went to most other agencies as volunteers, they would be told come
back when you're clean.
Chronicle: VANDU pushed
the boundaries from the beginning, didn't it?
Livingston: Never ask
permission. Do what you know to be right, do your research.
That's what we did with the needle exchange program at Main and Hastings.
Before anyone knows it, you're already doing it. The authorities
were shocked -- we were giving out a thousand needles a night, and it led
to a big fight between the health people and the cops. The cops came
with 17 officers and gave us a ticket for blocking pedestrian traffic and
took our table away. That's how it was in the early years -- heartbreaking
and overwhelming. You just ran on adrenaline. The disaster
around us couldn't be exaggerated.
Later, it was the same thing
with our safe injection site. We didn't ask for permission.
We had active drug users supervising an injection site where 200 people
would come on the busiest nights. We had two user volunteers who
were paid $10 each and given a pound of coffee and some tobacco, and they
were to watch the doors, man the phones, revive overdoses. It was
bizarre. We had no money. It was crazy in there, but it was
better than the alley. We called it the Back Alley Drop-In.
The street nurses would come by frequently. The police would come
by frequently, too, but they didn't shut us down.
Chronicle: What is
the current membership of VANDU, in numbers and in kinds of people involved?
Ann Livingston: There
are 1600 names on the VANDU list, although some of them are dead.
But we don't take their names of the list for two reasons. First,
those deaths are the foundation of our activism. Every meeting ends
with a moment of silence for those who have gone. The idea is that
these people did not die in vain; that we will act. Also, if you
take someone's name off the list and they're not really dead, they don't
like that. I think there are about 5,000 addicts down here.
We probably had 800 active volunteers at our peak, and currently have about
400. And there are about 150 or 200 people who will at least come
in and drink a cup of coffee. In addition to current or former drug
users, we also have a few hundred supporting, nonvoting members.
We very consciously describe
VANDU as composed of drug users and former drug users. That gives
people some cover. I can stand there and say I represent VANDU and
people don't know which group I'm in. It's none of their fucking
Chronicle: What is
VANDU doing these days?
Livingston: We have
several initiatives as well as a full slate of meetings. We have
alley patrols that go out for two hours a day four days a week, two people
together, and sometimes a street nurse, to go through the alleys and knock
on hotel doors and check on people. They get $10 each. We also
do hospital visits -- two people go twice a week. And there are five
meetings a week. On Tuesday, we have the rock users group, where
everyone is focused on what we're going to do about public rock smoking
-- a safe inhalation site, perhaps? On Wednesdays, it's the crystal
meth group. That's fairly new, and those people are super-marginalized.
People like to pretend that meth is a low-class drug, but everybody's doing
it, right? Also on Wednesday, there is the meeting of the BC Association
of People on Methadone. There are 8,000 people on methadone in BC,
and they need some sort of voice. On Thursday, the VANDU board meets.
On Friday, it's the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, VANDU's
aboriginal council. In all Canada, there are no other aboriginal
health groups that are into harm reduction. Our group formed a society
just so they could get some funding. We also have meetings focused
on AIDS, Hep C, housing. The meetings are a way for marginalized
people to begin to work their way into the organization. And all
the newbies get to volunteer in the office. Most of these meetings
are full. If we had the money, we could have meetings like these
at three or four locations in Vancouver alone. There would be hundreds
more drug users in meetings every day. They want to be engaged.
Chronicle: Is the VANDU
model one that is transferable to other cities in political climes that
are perhaps not so friendly as Vancouver?
Livingston: What we
need is a drug user organizing school. When we make up a curriculum
and a methodology, we can expand this. We need a lot more people
with these sorts of skills to do drug users' groups. Drug users are
creative people. If they can score drugs clandestinely day in and
day out, they can do a user group. That's easy compared to trying
to score drugs all day.
You can do this anywhere.
Even in Vancouver, we were up against difficult dynamics, and we really
started from nowhere. Every city has a place where the drug addicts
go. Go there. Don't say you're going to start a drug user group.
Instead, we want to get people with drug issues together to talk about
those issues. This gets them thinking about their community; everyone
knows somebody worse off than they are. Then you get them thinking
what can we do? Find some way they can help. Maybe it's giving
out safe injection kits. Whatever it is, people will jump at an opportunity
to help; it brings out their good side.
It's all in persistence.
You keep plodding along. You know there are 5,000 addicts in the
city, and once they get past thinking you're a Christian or a cop, you
can start getting somewhere. You don't know if you're going to be
successful until you try a meeting a week. If no one comes, you have
to ask people why no one is there. Is it the wrong place? The
wrong time? And once you get a good time and place, you want to keep
it the same. These people aren't carrying daytimers, so we use a
lot of postering to remind people. Drug addicts are some of the busiest
people on earth; they tend to get quite a bit done. They don't get
days off, and they'll work you to death. It is hard to get time off
because of the urgency of the situation.