NORMA IBARRA PORTFOLIO // 11.3
— Along with a smile as big as her camera bag (it’s massive), Norma brings so much originality to the table. She...
I recently caught wind of some interesting work that Tremaine Glasgow is doing, and felt compelled to share some of his experiences to date. We’re all out in the streets regularly skateboarding, so we’re seeing all different types of people, many of whom are facing struggles that we can’t even imagine going through. Read on for the perspective of someone that’s out there trying to do their part on the front lines of the opiod and affordable-housing crisis in Vancouver. —Jeff Thorburn
You’ve been working with the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) for a couple of months now. Can you tell me a bit about it?
PHS does a lot of the housing and stuff on Hastings for all the—I’m going to say users, but people know them as drug addicts. People think that a drug addiction is the reason people are in these situations, like they just tried crack once or something. It’s obvious that’s not why people get addicted to drugs. These people have experienced trauma growing up, and organizations like PHS help them deal with that.
What was your first day like?
My first day of training was at New Fountain Shelter on Hastings. This shelter is a safe injection site. You can go there—even if you don’t have a bed there—and use. It’s an old building that looks like a run-down grocery store. I’m walking through all of this for my training, blown away. One of the main spokesmen of the company comes in and talks to us, tells us how it is. Instantly I got the feeling of, “Whoa, I need to do this job. It’s important.” It’s a job where you’re helping a community. It’s not a government job, even though it should be, and it’s not like you need to go to school for it, because they give you the training. You have to deal with overdoses; that’s the biggest thing. You have to deal with saving someone’s life. My last day of training was what’s called an intake shift at New Fountain Shelter on New Year’s Eve. You deal with who gets a bed. As soon as I got in there—overdose.
Can you describe what that was like?
The guy was on the ground, turning blue, snoring, eyes rolled in the back of his head, needle on the ground, blood on the floor because he had just shot up. This woman I was working with came by and gave him an oxygen mask and put the pulse oximeter on his finger to monitor his pulse, because if it’s below a certain level you have to give him Narcan (a brand of naloxone, a medication used to block the effects of opioids—ed.). With an overdose, the thing is, they’re not getting air. He came back with just the oxygen, but within 30 minutes, there was another overdose. This one was a guy that I was doing intake for. He instantly overdosed. So the woman with me asked for my help. I went into the room and knew I had to be ready. With Narcan, there are two spots where you need to do it, the forearm and the thigh. When she did the thigh, and this happens to everyone at some point, she just froze a bit because she got him in the side of the leg and hit the bone, so the needle bent. It didn’t bend inside, but we needed to inject it again. So she asked me to do the next one. I do it—it’s not working. In the middle of this, you have to just breathe, to assess and help this person. So I gave him the Narcan, and then she said we needed to give him more, because his levels were still going down. So I stabbed him again in the same spot, we gave him more oxygen, and he came to. I’ve dealt with a couple more overdoses and the last one I dealt with didn’t turn out well.
Do you see a lot of the same people and get to know them?
I see a lot of the same people. They’re all cool. I already knew in my head that these people just want to be treated like part of humanity, and I know what it’s like to be treated differently, being black. So I felt that anybody I’m going to deal with, I’m going to treat them fairly, even if they have a bad history. You find out some shit about these people, but you can’t judge them. This could happen to anyone. One of the new projects I’m working at, it’s for black and Indigenous people, homeless ones, because there are people that have been on the streets for like 30 years and never had a bed. They’re finally starting to open this place up on Union Street, which used to be Hogan’s Alley before they built the viaducts.
Can you explain a bit more about Hogan’s Alley?
It was an ethnic community Vancouver had up until around 1970. Mostly black. It’s very famous, like Sammy Davis Jr. always came down here, Jimi Hendrix came down here. Nora Hendrix, his grandmother, lived down here and worked at the chicken shack across the street from this new modular housing project. It was all women that worked there, and it was only open from like 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. or 7 a.m. All the famous black jazz artists used to come down. Then the viaducts (the roadways that run above the downtown skate plaza—ed.) were built, and most of that community had to move out to New Westminster, Surrey, or other parts of BC.
How do you feel at the end of a shift with PHS?
This woman I worked with at the Portland Hotel told me during a training shift that after this job you get this thing called a “compassion boner.” She explained it like them using a drug; you feel so good doing these things for these people, and it’s like charity work that you’re getting paid for. But that feeling is kind of like a bad feeling. I knew right at the beginning that I shouldn’t feel good about this. This is just what they should get. If you were in this situation, if the tables were flipped, you would feel like you deserve this support because you never got it before. I always think about it like that.