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We amplify marginalized voices and create meaningful work for those experiencing poverty

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Embracing the Power of Pen on Paper

The bloom of warmth, like a smile, and underlying, unbreakable strength — these are parts of the healing journey that are discovered through the prose and poetry written inside a Downtown Eastside recovery centre

Amy Romer
Visual Journalist

Joanna Reid

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Every Thursday evening, a group of writers gathers in a second-floor room at Onsite, the residential detox centre above Insite, at 139 E. Hastings St.

The writers, residents at the facility, sit around a table with their notebooks. The space feels quiet, as many of the other residents have gone back to their rooms, and the sounds of the street outside are distant.

The writers work alongside a facilitator from Megaphone, who suggests prompts and activities. Lately, the writers have been reading poems by Lee Maracle, creating mind maps, and continuing to work on personal journals and reflections. Discussion is essential in the workshop. 

“There’s lots of free-flow conversation around the themes that come up,” says Surya Govender, who has been facilitating here for over a decade.

The writers talk and write about homelessness, addiction and stigma. Political critiques are common, too, as the writers explore how the city and politicians repeatedly fail to provide the supports that this community needs. They also often write about mentors or personal heroes: the people who have shaped or inspired them.

From this modest space has come raw, strong expressions of struggle and hope from people in recovery. Work from Onsite writers has been appearing in Megaphone publications for 13 years, and the workshop — a compassionate hub of creativity and learning — continues to support writers who are finding their voices in transition.

‘Radical empathy’ in practice 

“Up the stairs to Onsite,” writes Harley Frank, a past participant in the workshops, “where the only euphoria I get is waking up, washing my face, eating breakfast and having a puff on a vaporizer.” 

His poem, Remix: 10 Years of Dirt, describes a contradictory, in-between kind of feeling of being at this recovery centre. The poem goes on: “But nothing is wrong inside here. This smile feels so strong, nothing can break it.”

The discovery of warmth like a smile and of underlying, unbreakable strength — these are parts of a healing journey at this recovery centre.

Onsite seeks to be a very caring place, says Liz Farge, longtime manager of the facility. 

“One of the things we really, really emphasize here is the practice of radical empathy and showing that to each other,” she says. “Everybody here is so supportive.”

It’s a sentiment shared by the writers. 

“It is an amazing community,” says one current resident and workshop participant. 

Residents at Onsite are in a transitional place in their lives, says Farge; they are learning to “uncover and recover themselves.” To support this transition, Onsite offers programming such as yoga, acupuncture, music therapy, mindfulness meditation, a journalling group, a book club and Indigenous programming (such as a talking circle).

The writing workshop is an important piece of these caring enrichment programs.

“The writing program is pleasant and therapeutic,” says a current participant. “It’s a way to release all those emotions that come while in sobriety.”

Many of the participants at the Onsite workshop are already writers, with years of experience writing in journals or working on song lyrics or in other genres. Others claim no writing experience, and then find powerful ways to tell their own stories and connect with authentic parts of themselves.

Farge reports that Onsite residents look forward to the writing session each week. Writing, she says, allows participants “to access a part of themselves that seems to be an essence of who they are.”

Says one participant: “Creative writing is one of the key mechanisms that afforded me sanity in a world of insanity. It brought out my compassionate mind, which is why I jumped at the fortuitous opportunity to participate in an activity as a way afforded to us to heal.” 

Govender and the other facilitator, Katie Czenczek, agree with the idea that writing can help people heal. In describing their approaches to the workshops, they emphasize the power of developing one’s unique voice and finding strength in honesty and vulnerability.

Trust plays a key role in creativity

“The creative process is one of experimentation, trust, making mistakes and resolving problems,” says Govender, describing the role of writing in recovery. “People get to practise: ‘What is it like if I take a little risk? What is it like to be a little vulnerable here?’ They get to see the benefits of that and then build on that.”

The workshop is a safe, supportive space for this risk-taking. On a personal note, I have visited or facilitated five Onsite workshops this past fall. To a newcomer, what’s striking about the group is its atmosphere of warmth, generosity and support.

“Wow – that’s so powerful,” participants say to one another after a reading. “Good for you!” they tell someone who has revealed a personal success or a milestone on their recovery journey. 

A community writing connection

Back in 2009, Megaphone had just opened a new street-front office at the InterUrban Gallery at 1 E. Hastings St. Staff there knew that they wanted to make community voices more prominent in the monthly magazine, but they were still figuring out how to make connections with Downtown Eastside writers. 

“There was a lot of stigma around homelessness and addiction, and we knew that solutions needed to come from the community,” recalls Sean Condon, who was involved in creating the organization in its current form. “But those community voices were often marginal.”

The connection between Megaphone and Onsite was first forged when a worker from the PHS Community Services Society (which co-manages the Onsite program with Vancouver Coastal Health) brought in some writing from someone who was in recovery at the detox centre. The work was powerful and moving.

“We were extremely impressed,” says Condon.

That writer was Melita Carlsen. Staff at Megaphone were so “blown away” by her writing, he says, that they came up with the idea to feature Carlsen on the cover of the magazine and print one of her pieces. The issue of Megaphone with Melita Carlsen on the cover, all those years ago, was called Voices of the Street.

“This is where people go when they become tired of fighting the same fight over and over, never getting it right,” Carlsen writes in that issue. “This is where people have no one to give them a break and no reason to wake up in the morning. This is where people give up, walking around with only death in their eyes.”

Soon after, Megaphone proposed a series of writing workshops at InterUrban, Onsite and the Drug Users Resource Centre (which closed in 2016). PHS supported and funded these workshops. Soon, the City of Vancouver provided funding to expand the program to community centres such as the Gathering Place.

While some of these workshop settings have come and gone, the program at Onsite has continued for more than 13 years, lasting even through the COVID-19 pandemic. Kevin Hollett, a former Megaphone employee who facilitated some of the early workshops, believes that the Onsite sessions’ longevity is “in large part because of how writing can help people who are confronting their substance use.”

Over the past 13 years, hundreds of writers have participated in the workshop. Work by Onsite writers is now central in Megaphone’s publications, including the monthly magazine and the annual literary anthology, which is called Voices of the Street and is now in its 12th year.

“I rely on that writing so heavily,” says Paula Carlson, current editorial and program director at Megaphone. “Really, we get some of the most beautiful writing from folks at Onsite. There are some extremely gifted writers who come from there.”

Taken together, these pieces from Onsite writers over the years form a substantial body of work and are an important part of the literary landscape of the Downtown Eastside. Recent pieces coming from the workshop address loss and depression, and make a case for decriminalization. Such work is critical to Megaphone, which seeks to share the voices of people who have lived experience with homelessness, trauma, poverty, racism, colonialism and addiction. It is also a powerful demonstration of the creative talent in the community today.

The Onsite writing is “just so honest, and raw and true,” says Liz Farge. “The workshop is a place of people being truly vulnerable in a way that’s so unsafe to do down here usually. And it’s so beautiful.”

Filed under: Community

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Amy Romer

Amy Romer

Visual Journalist

Amy Romer is an award-winning photojournalist and visual storyteller based in North Vancouver. Her work focuses primarily on human rights and the environment. She is a National Geographic Explorer. Visit amyromer.com to view her work.

Joanna Reid


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