Out of the Rain (Rainstorm, Issue 1)


By Irwin Oostindie

Illustration by Ken Foster


The rain pours, with an especially cold day replacing an already cold night. The wetness saturates and eats away at the skin. The new gift of white leather NIKE sneakers, usually a sweet gift that might have some lasting, I am now discarding with no space to dry them for another day, no use in their discomforting cold spongy wetness.

If not for the cold and wet, the freedom of the night’s darkness might give some brief respite to the mind’s churning through scenes of wanting and grief. The lights of the ‘Ghetto Gestapo’ slowly reflect through the alley puddles as they prowl their patrol car pushing people along and throughout … displacing, moving, subjecting, accusing. On their tails, amplified by their fluorescent authority and cell phones are the minimum wage private security guards doing the dirty work of the property owners.

These times, there is no escape from the wetness, from the cold, from the misery and hurt: from the lack of shelter, work, support, the lack of healing or respect. For want of 3 bucks for a single brief hit, 10 bucks to score something with my comrade soldier in this nighttime battle against loneliness and raging damp suffocation. Walking further past Pigeon Park, along to Cordova, and east, a wooden crate beckons near the dark doorway of the coffee shop. I reach down, pull off a loose side, revealing a bare faced surface of smooth surface. My other hand, scabbed and arthritic from the cold clutches a black marker, a chalk, a pencil, a finger full of discarded latex paint, pass to my other hand, and my body swings down to the sidewalk, simultaneously resting and hiding my crouched body against the doorway.

My hands scratch at an elbow length’s of the sheet, clutched fingers around my instrument. It begins its hypnotic swirl of images and memories from the alley, from the last hour, from this morning, from across the street, from the craving to curl into a warm dry ball, succumbing to the comfort of the night. Black lines reveal a figure, a chaotic creation of immediate sense, a remarkable honesty, an expression of survival from Vancouver’s wet streets.

Marking and coating the cardboard, pushing and forcing the makeshift artists’ tableau to reveal its secrets, the art is finished in 20 or 30 minutes. With adrenalin rushing I stand and put the drawing under my jacket and start the wet walk across Cordova to Carrall. I scan the nighttime partygoers for customers. Further down Columbia and Alexander, an hour and 3 cigarette donations later, I find a suburbanite customer who eyes the street art commodity, is pumped up by the haggling over five bucks for the right to transport this blackened trophy of my cold dark night back to his apartment in Kitsilano, North Van, Commercial. A cigarette in my mouth, and half a rock beckoning, I make off, my feet wet, my chest coughing, my heart pumping, my mind fresh.

For some of Vancouver’s 1300 homeless residents this cycle masks many layers of latent potential for something more than the hand-to-mouth existence it serves. Hundreds of Vancouver’s finest artists have found themselves drawn over the past 30 years to the low-rents, working class and artist-run culture of the Downtown Eastside. Many have died here, in a lock down with heroine and crack addiction. For some the journey is slow, spurned on by an under-funded and scattered artists’ community, squeaking out a living in a hugely inflated real estate market where landlords can charge anything and discriminate against anyone. Life moves on, while hurt and anguish grow. The city grows darker and uglier, moldier and colder; and the freighters beckon with new shipments of salve for everything the soul is wanting.

In the midst of this national public health crisis, the provincial NDP and Liberals cut welfare rates, the federal government abandoned their commitment to housing as a human right, and the City’s COPE-Vision-NPA governments allowed poverty pimp apartment building owners to deliberately run down people’s SRO homes, with no enforced regulations. To escalate this misery, and fuel free market vultures speculating freely upon people’s lives, most everyone in power marched in lock-step towards 2010 to guarantee a massive appropriation of public funds to invite the world and fast-track the gentrification of the ‘heart of the city.’ In the Downtown Eastside every Friday night religious people stalk the poor to hand out chocolate bars and Wonder Bread, while all down the street, empire-building missions ask the poor to stand out in sometimes-brutal weather for hours if they want something to quell the hunger in their bodies or a place to sleep.

A community of courageous souls live and survive in these streets. Some also die here. Others endure the humiliation of the charity shelter, or eek out a life amongst the remaining bed-bug infested Single Resident Occupancy “hotels.” Here they live in the middle of prolific drug use, depressing squalor with frequent theft of their few belongings. Add to this grave health risks from disease, overdose, violence and sexual violence. Or some are picked up for St. Paul’s, VGH, the drunk tank and jail, only to return to the wet streets.

This community of street survivors reflects a group of tenacious Vancouver residents who are left to their own, struggling with demons, reflects shame upon the city. Within the hundreds, many of these people and children who are homeless in our city are victims of failed policies. All this takes place in the shadow of a rampant free market that seems to say, ‘we don’t need you,’ or ‘you have been forgotten’ while many of CanWest’s daily declarations, as if fresh from Orwell’s typewriter, hammer home the battle at our doorstep, suggesting we push aside all those who might stall economic growth.

A handful of marginalized street artists who survive by hawking their art, come together at Gallery Gachet on East Cordova. Now in it’s 15th year of supporting artists concerned with mental health and trauma issues, the artist-run centre brings homelessness and culture together with ‘Out of the Rain,’ a marginalized-artists mentoring program. ‘Out of the Rain’ connects artists with mentors and aims to stabilize street-entrenched Vancouver residents’ hourly/daily cycles, by intervening with art studio space, where art supplies aren’t stolen, and training and life planning support can take hold.

For a homeless artist who, prior to experiencing the abyss of addiction, was selling artworks for a few thousand dollars each, a stable and dry creative work environment might be a ticket to change. Vancouver’s street artists are prolific exactly because of the interplay between the cultural economy and that of the street drug trade and addiction. Many Downtown Eastside artists have works displayed in hundreds of people’s homes —yet have no home themselves.

Out of the Rain can fill in as a link to a path of recovery and health. Coming together in a dignified gathering of peers, the program is designed to provide artists with a basic daily support structure, art production routine, food, and when supports are available, a dry bed. The process of getting into a studio means art can be produced and honoured with the full creative process, rather than pushed out to the local market at bars or street corners for ten dollars of short-term sustenance.

Out of the Rain also encourages this community of artists to speak through their art about the issues of gentrification and homelessness in Vancouver. This conversation is open to all Vancouverites throughout the winter months, culminating in an exhibition April 4—26, 2008 at Gallery Gachet, 88 East Cordova, www.gachet.org.

Poems by Hermes Williams

Full moon madness makes me macabe

To make you lean, mean and unclean is my job

Showing you the truth of your abuse is my gift

Hopefully to steer you from the lips of the abyss

But the prick of the needle to so many is a high of its own

It’s an art form sculpting human bodies into bones

As the blood trickles down your arm you feel some relief

The heavy sigh of a heavy high of a heartbeat about to cease

Bright red flower lovely to see and to smell

Hard as fuck to believe this beauty can lead to hell and to jail cells

That’s why when somebody o.d.s I can never seem to cry

They did it to themselves so I call it a suicide

Flash to the jungle natives living off the land

Locals survive with herbatology the way of the medicine man

A leaf from a tree they use like Copenhagen chew

But cook it and look at it spread over the earth like a flu

So many people in so many places loving the different powders and different bases

Good girls go bad and turn into hardened hoes and scandalous bitches

Would-be kings of the ghetto fuck up account and get found in ditches

Quick and easy way from rags to riches and back down to rags

It’s easy to tell those with no control under the eyes is always bags

Never seem to stay clean rejecting all moral, beliefs and manners

Always seem to get jacked up hear their names on police scanners

But the vapours and fumes from a chip off of this ol’ base rock

It’s like nothing else in the world so boys and girls find it impossible to stop

But it’s like that fucking around with heroin and crack

But it’s like this when you go there, there’s no turning back

Believe don’t

Please be quiet

I’m trying to finally sleep

For you it’s outside

Just a doorway in a smelly alleyway

A place to indulge in your iniquity

Nothing but temporary shelter from rain and pain

To us it’s more than that

So be quiet please

Because for me this alleyway

Is home

HRW 2000

Cautious consumerism

Beware the buggery

Everywhere they enter

Waiting to lay waste and eggs

Some think paranoia

I think otherwise

Just know there are more parasites

Than people down here

HRW 2006

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