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Community-grown Downtown Eastside market provides lifeline to residents

Sarah Blyth says the market grew out of a protest 10 years ago

By Stephanie Eva Wood and Jess Mackie , in City , on March 20, 2018

Since 2015, Silverjay has run his own business. He pays binners for scrap metal they have reclaimed from the trash and refines it himself. The collectors earn set rates for their finds while Silverjay sells the finished products — jewellery and silver bars — at the city-sanctioned Downtown Eastside Market.

Silverjay’s business is just one example of how vendors and other people in the community collaborate within the market. The trade has become a cornerstone of the neighbourhood’s economy, providing a reliable, safe place for people to gather.

“There’s a great community culture here,” said Silverjay. “The spirit is thriving.”

Sarah Blyth, manager of the DTES Market and the Overdose Prevention Society next door, said the market grew out of a protest 10 years ago. People from the Downtown Eastside rallied for a place to sell their items and earn extra income since the municipal government prohibits street vending. For years, they sold their goods on the Hastings Street sidewalk between Carrall and Columbia streets but city workers pushed them out four years ago. They were asked, instead, to sell out of a formally approved market on a piece of city property across the street at 62 East Hastings. 

The move has turned into a success on many levels.

“It’s a lot more than a market. It’s a community for people,” said Blyth. “It gives people a routine, it gives people an opportunity to do something that’s meaningful.”

While the City of Vancouver now supports the market, Blyth emphasized that “it’s an initiative that was grown from the community, by the community.”

Collaborating through trade

The charity behind the DTES Market, the Downtown Eastside Market Society, permits vendors to sell items they have made or have collected directly from alleys and dumpsters.

Others trade their inventory amongst each other, buying goods to sell later at a higher price or to keep for themselves, said vendor Michael Blouin.

“A lot of people are struggling,” said Blouin. “They need extra money for food, because you can’t live off of welfare.”

Trading also means people without cash can still access food and clothing.

Vendors sell basic supplies at low prices to residents of the neighbourhood, such as parkas, runners, and canned goods. Other offerings, like teddy bears, acrylic paintings, and wooden carvings, provide shoppers with small luxuries.

Blyth said most items are salvaged and refurbished. The market prohibits stolen goods though some stolen goods inevitably wind up in the booths.

“Nothing is perfect at the market, but that’s actually what makes it fabulous, that it’s not perfect, that you can find all kinds of amazing things there, at all times,” said Blyth.

Brent Skory, acting as one of the market’s co-ordinators. Credit:  Alastair Spriggs

Getting a ‘fair crack at things’

The Downtown Eastside Market only employs residents in the neighbourhood, who work as vendors or volunteers in order to keep financial benefits within the community.

Marcel Mousseau is a vendor who has found success and stability through the market. An actor and an artist who has lived in the Downtown Eastside since he was 15, Mousseau crafts dreamcatchers from jade and found stones and sells them for $10 at the market.

“This market provides an opportunity for [vendors] to come and move a little bit of items and make a few bucks and pay their own way,” said Mousseau. “And they walk away with a little bit of dignity, their head up in the air, and they’re smiling.”

Blyth said the market aims to assist Downtown Eastside residents who struggle to find work and give them a “fair crack at things.”

Locals can also become market volunteers in cleaning, security, or supervising positions.

“If you’re homeless and you come to our meeting and want to work, and you haven’t worked for quite a few years, we figure out a way to get you in there and working,” said Blyth, adding volunteers earn an honorarium for their work.

“It really is the most grassroots employment that you could possibly get,” she said.

Janet Charlie, an acting co-ordinator at the market, said Downtown Eastside residents have to show dedication to the market to become volunteers.

“You have to go through the training and the patience to be here,” she said. “You have to prove yourself that you’re willing to be here and get here early every morning.”

Charlie has been with the market for over five years. She said the job is more fulfilling than others she has had, and that it has helped her stay sober these past two years.

By many vendors’ accounts, rather than encouraging competition, theft or drug use, the market has become one of the safest, cleanest, most collaborative spots in the neighbourhood.

“Everybody here [at the market] is from different parts of the country, different walks of life,” Mousseau said. “We all get along because we’re here for the same purpose: to make this work.”

This piece was done in collaboration with Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, Ryan Patrick Jones, Dustin Patar and Alastair Spriggs.