Updates, semi-thesis progress, and interviews

Oh my gosh, so long since I last posted. This isn’t a blog so much as an annual checkup. There have been a lot of things going on, personally, professionally, with my health… I’m deep in edits & rewrites for my thesis and after working on it all day I don’t always want to rehash it and write about writing my thesis, it just seems like too much. My stats prof says if I hate it, I’m doing it right. Well I hate it, I want it to be over and just move on to the next step.

One of the more interesting things about just posting this blog is having connected with local filmmaker Andy Fiore at Fiore Films (healthchampion.blogspot.ca). He contacted me last year about participating in his documentary 10 City Blocks about women working in the downtown east side, and of course I said yes. It was aired recently on Shaw Cable’s community access programming, which was interesting; I’m still not used to seeing myself on screen, and find it very weird.

But it was a great experience, Andy gave me great feedback, and the film itself was received well with surprise from some viewers regarding the experiences disclosed by some of the women interviewed. The violence that women, men, and youth experience in the sex trade here in Vancouver surprises people, even those who knew of Gary Ridgway – the Green River killer in Seattle – and Robert Pickton in Coquitlam. Some expressed a challenge at getting past the descriptions of the violence to be able to watch the rest of the film.

I think that’s spurred Andy to continue exploring this part of life in Vancouver’s DTES; he contacted me a few months ago to see if I’d be interested in collaborating on another documentary. Not a follow-up per se, but new interviews with different women, and interviewing them with the goal of getting to know who these women we see on the streets are; as people, as women who have/had dreams and goals, lives before the DTES, their plans to leave, and what they want for their futures. Andy’s vision was to focus more on the camera work and have me approach our potential interviewees and then lead the interviews and hopefully be able to develop enough rapport to encourage them to open up.

I couldn’t say no. If you want to know a person you have to meet them, talk with them, and be willing to interact with them in their place, on their terms. With experience in working with people in recovery, with my students at SFU, and teaching active listening and interviewing skills, I felt it was the best way to use and practice my own skills. I could really test myself; could I make someone feel comfortable enough to share difficult and traumatic experiences with me, a complete stranger? Would they trust me right away? And could I approach people in such a way that doesn’t come off as phony or faking it? Are the skills I’ve taught my students truly effective? Can I do it the way I say they should do it? So many questions, but the possible rewards outweighed any of my own nervousness.

We started our interviews on Sunday, August 19th, with the hope that a late Sunday morning might find us people who weren’t too anxious about getting their fix or who maybe weren’t coming off of a rough night. Andy would let me walk ahead about a block and let me approach people to see if they would be willing to chat with us, and if they were, I’d wave him over. Hopefully me approaching them alone would be less threatening or just less weird, in general.

We got two interviews and they were amazing.

Cathy and Allison* were so open and forthcoming, willing to answer all my questions and not shying away from much. They’re women who came downtown for different reasons and from different backgrounds, but what struck me were three of the messages they each shared with me.

  1. Show people respect and they’ll show respect back
  2. Don’t rob other people; be good to your clients
  3. Trust your gut instincts; don’t go if it doesn’t feel safe

Cathy came from “straight” life in North Vancouver; she went to university, was a legal secretary, had a home, family, kids, job… she sounds like me; she could be me… she came to the DTES to help a loved one who has been so victimized & abused as a DTES resident that she can’t help herself anymore. “Doing dates” was just to make extra money to help Cathy’s loved one but says that she herself is stuck there now because of addiction to crack. She shared with me that she’s been through rehab for alcohol and it worked, and wants to go to rehab for drugs, but lost her spot because she was discharged from detox before the program called and were told that she had left. She is still on the waitlist and says she’ll go when they call, but she echoes the words of other DTES residents and outreach workers that unless there is a place to go right away when someone says, “I’m ready,” many people will change their minds even just a couple days later.

She told me that services are lacking; not enough detox beds, not enough rehab beds, not enough GOOD rehab beds away from the drug dealers out on the streets, and that programs are not long enough or intensive enough for real recovery. She also shared that there is a terrible lack of safe, clean housing; not only safe from violence and drugs outside, but safe buildings that meet City building and health codes. Buildings that have clean, usable bathrooms and with kitchen/ette facilities instead of desk staff making $20-30 an hour with brand-new security cameras.

In discussing safety we talked about making it safer for women to work on the streets; she didn’t necessarily want to see a “red light” district but indoor spaces where there could be security or at least other people around in case you got into trouble. She said the old SROs of downtown Vancouver may not have been the best but at least they were a place to go where there were other people around.

Cathy also viewed the police relatively positively and said she hadn’t had any bad experiences with them herself. She said the police are just doing their jobs and don’t want to see any of the “working girls” hurt, and she wouldn’t hesitate to report violence to the police. Unless someone had drugs or was selling drugs, the police largely don’t bother the girls. It sounded like the police in the DTES respected the rights of working girls and give them space to make their living.

I felt like Cathy and I had a good rapport even in such a short time. I hope she felt that I was respectful of her as a person and not coming across as being judgmental of her. I don’t know if she could tell how much of a noob I was at just walking up to people; I don’t want anyone to think I’m “profiling” them as working girls based on their appearance or where I come across them, that’s as much as saying I’m judging them. I need to be more demonstrative that I want to talk to them because it’s their community; where they live, work, and socialize; that they are the ones who know the community’s heart and soul.

I’m also trying my best to remain present and focus on what people are telling me, and avoid using stupid jargon or buzzwords – which itself is a stupid portmanteau “buzzword” itself – because it cheapens what they are saying. While I want to be able to capture the essence of what they share with me, I don’t want to disrespect them by distilling all the emotion and humanity from it.

Cathy kept her sunglasses on during the interview; I looked closely to see her eyes behind them, but I wish I’d asked to see her without them. As open as she was with me, perhaps it was just a small measure of self-protection. I didn’t feel I could intrude on her space more just to ask that of her. I have her my mini-card, so I hope I’m lucky enough to see her again.

Tomorrow I’ll post about meeting Allison.


*Names have been changed to protect their identities.

SRO: single-room occupancy hotels

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About Kelly Bohl

Graduate student with a day job who enjoys great cafes, exploring restaurants, and the best diners. When I'm not out sampling great dishes at our restaurants, I'm engaged in testing various recipes to make my own great dishes at home.
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