Fighting for Space chronicles a hard-fought battle in the War on Drugs

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Insite Vancouver. Photo: Jonathan Dickinson

Both Fighting for Space and Hundred Block Rock -- two books centered in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) -- begin in an unexpected place: Toledo, Ohio. On which, the latter’s author, Bud Osborn wrote, “where long ago happy kodak family/has long since been destroyed.”

Toledo is Osborn’s “unholy” hometown -- and another North American city feeling the brunt of the overdose crisis.

It has been 18 years since Osborn, famed poet of the DTES and activist behind many of Vancouver’s drug policies, released his book of poems. Vancouver has since legislated the Four Pillars drug strategy, and Insite has become a permanent fixture on Hastings Street.

In his new book, Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City's Struggle with Addiction, Vancouver journalist Travis Lupick chronicles these changes.

Sometimes a telling of history acts as a call to action. Amidst the chaotic bureaucracy battles, run-ins with the state, and the busy streets of the DTES, Lupick manages to do exactly that.

And in the context of the overdose crisis, there could not be a better time.

Osborn is one of the many characters Fighting for Space tells its history through. Although Osborn passed away before the book was written, his fingerprints and influence are felt throughout. Lupick dives into the lives and humanity of many of the people who were behind Insite, North America’s first supervised injection site.

Some of the book’s greatest depth is not around protest and action, as the title would suggest, but in people’s life stories. In doing so, it examines complex questions: What influences people to wade into harm reduction? What type of person is drawn to these services that, for so long, were rejected and scorned by the state and its actors? Lupick shows, through diverse biography, what draws us -- workers and users -- together to these spaces. In this way, Fighting for Space is an important book not only for policymakers and historians; it also offers people on the frontlines of the housing and overdose crisis a sense of solidarity in a context beyond our own lives.

The story ranges from smaller acts, such as the first meeting of Portland Hotel Society founders Liz Evans and Mark Townsend, or Anne Livingston establishing the first illegal injection sites. It then moves into larger concepts, such as the B.C. Supreme Court case that recognized addiction as an illness. It even attaches this fight to the broader War on Drugs, told through a story of threats on sovereignty toward Liz Evans and her team from the U.S. consulate. 

Lupick lends a journalist’s hand to issues that have mostly been restricted to academic journals, making the story accessible and engaging.

And while a book this size or larger could have been written about addiction and drug use, this is where the book remains thinnest. At times it seems that the three addiction theorists that were heavily leaned on were picked to uphold a specific view. Right or wrong, they were left relatively unchallenged.

The book also covers the heartbreaking perils of academia itself. Lupick describes a fixed five-year research project that supplied people with prescription heroin. Although the results were considered successful, it was discontinued. He interviewed David Murray, a user of the program, who described this experience: “I was frantic after the program, I was back on the street doing a lot of heroin again. The heroin wasn’t working. I was doing a lot of pills -- anything to keep the edge off.”
Fighting for Space also made obvious that Lupick is not a reporter or researcher who has simply parachuted into the community then left. You do not have to search his archives to know that he has spent considerable time in the DTES and reporting on the crisis, it emanates from the pages.

One of the chapters, A Drug-Users Union, captures the nuance of the origins of the Vancouver Area Network for Drug Users (VANDU) with great detail. VANDU is 20 years old now and continues to organize, and hold meetings and educational sessions for people who use drugs. CBC reported in July that there is now a membership of 3,000. This chapter, like others, outlines important lessons for those who want to imitate what has worked in the DTES.

The book ends with where we are now -- in a crisis that has become highly normalized in the news cycle, and to which the state continues to react glacially to -- where some of the same activists, and new ones, are still fighting for space. 

The truth is, that although we live in a bleak time, by offering a celebratory look at past successes, Lupick offers a glimmer of hope. Not unlike the turn of narrative near the end of Osborn’s poem on Toledo: “circumstances of daily and my life and life itself hopelessly wrong/ this revelation contradicted experience.”

Tyson Kelsall is a former harm reduction worker who worked at an injection site in Victoria, British Columbia. He is currently working on a thesis about harm reduction and health at McGill University.  

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