Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

'Exploited and downtrodden to the point of despair': Radio show offers glimpse of Downtown Eastside 50 years ago (AUDIO)

"So many times by so many people they've been exploited and oppressed and abused and really f*cked over."

The beginning of 2022 marked the release of more archival Vancouver material into public domain; among that is a radio show called the Skid Road Special.

The show is a deep look into the world and issues along what was Vancouver's skid road (also called "skid row"): Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside. The neighbourhood is well known as one of the poorest in Canada, with many residents who face a variety of health and social issues.

The Skid Road Special, even though it's more than 50 years old, sees many of the same issues, though through a different lens.

"Skid Road is known for its dreary beer parlours, rundown hotels, and rooming houses," says the host in his introduction. "And it's generally thought of as an area of town inhabited by drunks, drug addicts, prostitutes and transients."

While that's the stereotypical description of the community, the show aims to educate listeners about issues facing those who live in the neighbourhood, and dispel myths. The host immediately notes, for example, that the idea that it's filled with transients is flawed as there were 7,000 permanent residents according to a 1971 census.

At the time the area was estimated to be 85 per cent single men, many of whom were former loggers who weren't able to work due to age or other reasons. They're described as being "trapped" due to a series of issues.

Religious groups the backbone of aid in the 1970s

Many issues discussed, through interviews with frontline workers and a man who had lived in the area for years, are familiar, though some seem simplified. At the same time, some of the mechanisms to deal with the issues have evolved significantly in the ensuing years.

While today organizations with religious backgrounds are heavily involved with efforts, the religious nature was often quite strong in the late 60s and early 70s, says George Marks, who's interviewed about living there.

"You see they have these rescue missions, you know, where a person goes and sits for at least a half-an-hour or an hour and listens to religious programs," Marks explains. "And then he gets some real, real bad food, or in one case he gets really, really shocking food."

The people living in the area feel forced into it, he explains, as rent often took up more than half of welfare cheques. As those funds dried up, the missions in the area were the only place to go.

"If they go to the Salvation Army for socks, or something like that they have to, they have to almost commit themselves to take Christ into their heart to get a pair of socks," he says.

Money, of course, is a major factor, like the rents that eat a good chunk of the welfare cheques. Marks explains he was getting $93.50 a month as welfare, and $40 was going to rent.

DTES residents recall being treated 'like an imbecile'

"The people who are on welfare now are worse off than I was then, you know, because they you know, the government has given them and given them an extra $40 or $50 bucks a month to live on," he explains. "But in the meantime, the cost of living has went up so that they should have been given another $100 a month to live on."

This traps people there, he goes on to say, and makes them reliant on the services concentrated there. At the same time, people often became friends, creating another reason not to leave.

Issues around the welfare system are also discussed; at the time a system of administration was set up for people who were thought to be wasting their money. It was meant to keep people from spending all their money on alcohol, but essentially meant a "responsible person, usually a clergyman or a social worker" would control someone's money. People recall being treated "like an imbecile."

The flawed system meant people who were robbed multiple times could end up trapped in it, and one of the frontline workers tells the story of a woman who was "administrated" for nine months after giving birth because while she was sick at the time of birth she agreed to it, not knowing what it really meant.

"She was doled out so much of her cheque, as much as the administrator felt that she needed, not what the woman felt she needed," the worker says. "If she wanted to go to a show or go somewhere with her baby and would like to have had extra money that was too bad."

Another difference in Vancouver at the time is that the Downtown Eastside wasn't unlike other neighbourhoods. One of the frontline workers notes that there were similar problems in Fraserview and Grandview. In fact, one of the most popular neighbourhoods in Vancouver was in a similar situation.

"We have problems in Kitsilano and some of the problems in Kitsilano are obvious because they are right out there in the open, the same as the problems in the Downtown Eastside," she says, noting it's a good time for people to get involved in helping out because the "problems are all so obvious."

Locals are 'exploited and oppressed and abused and really f*cked over'

However, Marks notes that the situation is the Downtown Eastside is full of people who have cut themselves off from everyone else.

"So many times by so many people they've been exploited and oppressed and abused and really f*cked over," he says. "Everyone in this community is locked out from everyone else because they don't trust anyone anymore," he says.

Notably, the show only briefly touches on some issues, or doesn't talk about them at all. Drugs aren't mentioned once, and addiction is only implied in regards to alcohol. And while one can see where mental health issues may be a part of what's going on, it's never discussed (Marks was "dumped on Skid Road" after leaving Riverview Hospital).

The show is a half-hour broadcast created in 1971, according to the City of Vancouver Archives; while the creator is listed as Vancouver Co-operative Radio that organization didn't exist until 1974. It's likely a precursor to the co-op produced it.

Listen to the broadcast in full through the video player up top.