Trinity Western University anthropology students break out of university bubble and step into Canada's worst postal code – Vancouver's downtown eastside.

Led by their anthropology professor Claudia Launhardt, better known as the co-owner of the Ivanhoe Hotel, these students have been stepping into areas of the downtown eastside, asking hard questions to address the city's current problems of drug addiction, homelessness and public disorder. Their approach might be the most basic but it might just be the most powerful – talk to the actual residents, business owners and diverse non-profit organizations in the downtown eastside and give their suggestions a voice.

In response to Mayor Sam Sullivan's public survey request entitled “Reducing Public Disorder – A Made in Vancouver Approach,” which asks citizens for solutions to end public disorder, the anthropology students brainstormed and chose several areas of focus. These include homelessness and shelters, churches, missions, businesses, mental and physical health, nutrition, gender issues, illness and the sex trade. Many of the poor are impacted by one or more of these issues and if solutions are to take place, governing bodies need to understand the relationship that each play in a person's life.

Launhardt, having a passion for anthropology and for the poor, decided to fuse the two interests together making for a very unique anthropology curriculum. The result has been an innovative teaching tool. Says Launhardt, “Part of understanding anthropology is to comprehend how to conduct field research. Sure the students could conduct research at the University but I wanted them to get out of the university bubble and get into a community. These students will be graduating soon and it's important for them to understand how societies work. By walking around and finding solutions, talking to the tenants, going and seeing what happens in the street, questioning why there are no garbage cans or hanging baskets in the downtown eastside, those sorts of things, by the students doing this type of research and commentary they obtain more practical skills and they get to see how they can potentially contribute to change.”

Students Erica Finlay and Darren Wiebe are two of the forty seven students researching solutions in the downtown eastside. The opportunity for education outside of the classroom has definitely made for proactive learning. Says Finlay, “I don't want this class to be a 'what can I get out of this project type of class' but instead I want to help those that live down there. We don't know the solutions so we want to learn. We also want to try to educate people on the positive things already happening in the community.” Wiebe agrees, “I hope we'll be taken seriously. These are huge global issues (poverty, homelessness) and it's overwhelming, but we are meeting with people that could implement change, so it's great to be part of the process.”

Sam Sullivan knows he needs solutions and he needs them fast. With the 2010 Olympics quickly approaching he doesn't have a great deal of time to ”fix” things or 2010 may end up looking a lot like Expo 86. Then, private enterprise looking to cash in sold many of their single residency occupancy hotels or SRO's to developers displacing hundreds of Vancouver's poor in the process. That mind set was like a dagger to the heart of the frail downtown eastside, ripping open and spilling the lives of many of BC's poor onto the street.

Today, not much as changed in twenty years. According to the Greater Vancouver Regional District there are approximately 2100 homeless in Vancouver. Just take a drive to the downtown eastside and you'll see record numbers of them. They lie outside boarded up hotels, new condominium developments and soup kitchens. Developers poised to make a quick buck are standing in line and salivating for the prime rib of real estate which is positioned seconds away from where the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympics are to take place.

Launhardt has seen first hand, with the success at the Ivanhoe, how a community can change when you insert dignity into the lives and surroundings of the poor and she hopes that more of these types of solutions will be found when her students finish their research. In early December, the university students, along with Launhardt, will arrive at Vancouver City Hall and hand over their findings to Sam Sullivan.

Says Launhardt, “First, this as an opportunity for students to view this process, learning how the city works, and second of all it encourages students to see that they have a voice. It's not just about writing essays and doing research but instead teaches them how democracy works.”

Trinity Western University, located in Langley, B.C., is a not-for-profit Christian liberal arts and sciences university enrolling approximately 4000 students. TWU offers undergraduate degrees in 39 major areas of study ranging from business, communications and education to biotechnology and nursing, and offers 15 graduate degrees in such areas as counseling psychology, business, the humanities, theology and administrative leadership.

Last Updated: 2007-10-11
Author: Erin Mussolum