Stanley Q. Woodvine is changing the way Vancouver sees homelessness
Stanley Q. Woodvine spends much of his time at the Waves coffee shop on Broadway and Spruce in Vancouver’s Fairview area, a neighbourhood he calls his own.
Like many Vancouverites, Woodvine foregos a traditional office space in exchange for one of the city’s many cafes. Settled on a leather armchair in a corner of the shop, he gets a lot done at this location, typing away on his Panasonic CF30, a rugged laptop known for its use by the U.S. Army. Outside, his bike rests against a pole with a large trailer fastened to the back. It’s in this trailer that Woodvine stores many of his personal items.
Woodvine relies on the cafe’s free internet to blog about the things in Vancouver that catch his attention. Weather anomalies and the changing face of the city are common topics for Woodvine. But he also delves into weightier issues, and it’s this content that has garnered the most attention.
The blogger covers homelessness in Vancouver and is uniquely qualified to do so: he has been without a permanent residence for over a decade, and has been writing about his experience for much of that time.
Despite having less access to the basic amenities that much of Vancouver takes for granted, Woodvine keeps a clean-cut appearance. With black hair and only the occasional speck of grey, the blogger looks a decade younger than his 60 years.
Those who are familiar with Woodvine’s work most likely came across it in The Georgia Straight. The writer has had a rare arrangement with the publication for a number of years; the paper’s editor, Charlie Smith, is free to pull from Woodvine’s blog in exchange for a monthly sum of a few hundred dollars. The result is a regular column titled “Homeless in Vancouver.” It is from this platform that Woodvine pulls back the curtain on homelessness, allowing Vancouverites a glimpse into life on the streets of the city.
It’s unsurprising that The Georgia Straight has taken an interest in Woodvine’s work. A 2019 homeless count in Vancouver saw 2,223 people without a roof over their heads, the highest number recorded since the survey began in 2002. And it’s a problem on the minds of many locals; a 2012 study conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion found that homelessness is a widespread concern for those living in Vancouver—on par with affordable housing and transportation.
As homeless rates have increased to record highs, the corresponding media coverage has reignited some long standing concerns.
One 2018 article from The Tyee, titled “Can Reporting on Vulnerable People Do More Harm than Good?”, tells the story of a group of journalism students entering Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood with the intention of reporting on a popular outdoor flea market. The group is confronted by an area advocate who criticizes them for interviewing residents without “giving anything meaningful back.”
Another article, published in 2019 by the web magazine Canadaland and titled “How (Not) To Report On Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside,” suggests that years of poor reporting on the area have left many Vancouverites with a skewed understanding of its residents.
A 2019 manifesto titled “Research 101: A Manifesto for Ethical Research in the Downtown Eastside”— written by SFU PhD student Scott Neufeld, in collaboration with various Downtown Eastside organizations—outlines the potential harm that academic researchers and journalists can unwittingly cause when operating in the Downtown Eastside.
“Sometimes research can be helpful, especially when done respectfully in true collaboration with the community. But research can also hurt,” the authors said. “Research can increase inequality, contribute to stigma, exploit peoples’ pain, exhaust community members and typically benefits researchers much more than it benefits the DTES.”
Travis Lupick is a freelance journalist who has long focused on issues relating to the Downtown Eastside, and authored the 2017 book by Arsenal Pulp Press, Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle with Addiction.
Lupick acknowledges that journalists are faced with ethical hurdles when reporting on marginalized communities. “Are you being responsible?” Lupick asks of those who conduct interviews in the Downtown Eastside.
Unlike many who have reported on the neighbourhood, Lupick has actually spent time living there too. He says that experience built in an “accountability mechanism,” meaning he could run into the people he was writing about. “Living in the Downtown Eastside,” he says. “You get to know your neighbours.”
While Lupick’s experience has gotten him close to Vancouver’s poverty crises, few have gotten as close as Stanley Q. Woodvine. According to Woodvine, it was the disconnect between journalists and the people they covered that partially inspired his journey into journalism.
“It was frustrating to me the way homelessness was being treated,” he says. “The entire experience of homelessness is largely filtered through the writing of non-homeless people.”
Using his personal familiarity with the topic, Woodvine has written a wide variety of stories, with titles such as: “Some positives and negatives of Dumpster diving” and “Going to bed under Sunday’s heavy blanket of rain.”
But his experience has also given him the empathy to write about other Vancouverites experiencing homelessness. Woodvine tears up remembering a story he wrote in 2018.
“It was about a fellow named Ted, dying in a Tim Hortons,” he recalls. “The City knew he was there; they knew he’d been virtually living in Tim Hortons for nine years. He had terminal cancer. Why did anybody leave him homeless? I mean, why? And no one could answer that question.”
Woodvine’s childhood was equally harrowing. He recounts a difficult early life in Saskatoon: “I was a ward of the government. My father was on welfare.”
But growing up, Woodvine found solace in his creativity. He remembers being in a “frightening” institution as a child, yet still sourcing art materials from administrators to create his own comic book. And as he got older, he honed his creative skills.
“I used the concept of art and pursuing that as a career—as a kind of goal to get me out of a situation that I was growing up within,” he says.
He eventually left the prairies, hitchhiking to Vancouver in 1980. He took work as a graphic designer, working for such publications as the (now-defunct) WestEnder and Georgia Straight. However, lacking a mind for business, Woodvine says he ended up focusing too heavily on the creative side of his freelance business, allowing his finances to suffer.
“Part of the job that I considered to be onerous—and an afterthought—was all the accounting and the billing,” he acknowledges. “And I paid the price for that.”
By the early 2000s, Woodvine was struggling to keep his business above water, and the freelance work ground to a halt. Losing the drive to continue, Woodvine ultimately ended up on a path to homelessness. “I know every flaw that I have—intimately,” he says. “And I’ve seen the consequences of them.”
Now, without a permanent residence for over a decade, Woodvine seems at peace with his homeless status.
“I have said that, for most people, becoming homeless is like falling off the edge of the world,” he observes. “But when you do it, you discover that the drop is about three feet.”
These days, the writer supplements his income from The Georgia Straight with money earned binning in Vancouver’s alleys. It’s tough work that has inspired many articles.
When night falls, Woodvine chooses to sleep in a parkade. Due to the conditions of Vancouver’s homeless shelters and City-provided housing, Woodvine says he prefers sleeping outdoors.
While he acknowledges that his current situation may be unsustainable, Woodvine’s future is uncertain.
“If I become infirm and I am no longer able to take care of myself on the street, then of course, I will have to throw myself on the slender mercy of the system.”
For select articles by Stanley Q. Woodvine, click here.
Ethics and the Downtown East Side
In 2019, PhD student Scott Neufeld and a coalition of Downtown Eastside groups created a manifesto on ethical research in the neighbourhood—geared toward both journalists and academics. Here’s their advice.
1. Work from a “trauma-informed perspective that anticipates and avoids potential harms.” They note that histories of trauma are common among marginalized members of the DTES.
2. “Don’t perpetuate stigma in the way you work with us.” They argue that prejudice against people who use drugs, are homeless, engage in sex work, have poor health, or have low incomes “might affect the way you work with us”
3. “Give peers some actual power in the research project.” This tip, germane to academics, argues that “tokenism” is a common pit-fall, where DTES residents are, “given little power or space in the important decisions and work of the project”
4. Where possible, use a neutral third-party mediator to “navigate issues of power, disrespect, or inequality in the research relationship”
5. “Provide resources for peer researchers to support them in their lives beyond the research project”