In recognition of Homelessness Action Week October 11 to October 17, Vancity Buzz will be featuring profiles and interviews with former residents of the Downtown East Side, organizations trying to make a difference, and the history of one of Vancouver’s most notorious neighbourhoods.
This series is presented in partnership with the Union Gospel Mission, which offers support, programs, and resources for people looking to overcome their addictions, re-enter the work force, and take back control of their lives.
On Saturday, October 17, 2015 UGM invites you to learn about the DTES community through the Hello Neighbour Project, which offers neighbourhood walks and a community event at Oppenheimer Park. For more info visit www.ugm.ca/haw.
More information on the Union Gospel Mission can be found online.
William Alex Watts was born in the Nisga’a village of Gingolx. At the age of eight he was taken from his grandparents and put into the residential school system, where he experienced constant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse for over two years.
“I was more or less brainwashed that I would never amount to anything, that I would be a drunk, that the reason that I’m in a residential school was because my family didn’t want me, they hated me, so I just took that,” Watts told Vancity Buzz.
Following his release from the residential school, Watts bounced around from foster home to foster home, before running away to Burns Lake, where he lived with a loving family for five years. No matter how good things were, though, the horrors of his past would continue to haunt him, until he had to do something himself.
“As I first had a taste of alcohol, I found it was a temporary solution for the memories that kept coming up,” he says. “So I drank.”
Watts’ dependence on alcohol to suppress his painful past kept him moving from town to town, even spending a year in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. No matter where he was, alcohol always seemed to catch up with him.
“I just moved. I burned bridges in each place I lived so I figured I’d run away from the alcohol, but the alcohol was everywhere.”
“Every time I moved to a different city, or a different town, or a different village I’d maintain maybe a couple days, sometimes a week sober, then automatically – liquor store,” he says. “I always had a reason to drink. I’d put on a face for other people and say ‘oh come have a drink with me’ or ‘get your weekend started.’ I always wore a face. A mask, I would call it.”
About 10 years ago, after decades of suppressing the memories of his childhood, of feeling the abandonment of being taken away from his grandparents, and the abandonment of trust in his life, Watts couldn’t take it any longer. It took a final abandonment to push him over the edge.
“I went out with this lady for seven and a half years, and she went to visit her mom in Grande Prairie, Alberta. She never came back,” says Watts. “It got to a point where I waited every day for a whole year, maybe even more than a year, hoping she would be at my place.”
“I just stressed myself out, and I drank more and more and more,” he says. “I would buy an eight-pack eight percent no-name beer, and drink two of those down quick… I would feel better. At the same time I always felt the abandonment issue, same thing that happened when I was a child. There was always something to remind of when I was a kid.”
Eventually, Watts ended up on the street, living from drink to drink, attempting to bury his emotions as deep as he could. In the summer of 2007, Watts enrolled himself in a treatment centre near Mission, B.C. called Miracle Valley. After completing the program, and getting his own place, Watts relapsed just before Christmas.
“I really lost myself,” he says.
After trying multiple times to quit, Watts found himself in the UGM Drop-in Centre in Mission. After going every day for a stretch of time, Watts met a few of the staff, including a man named Greg.
“When I was sexually abused by one of the individuals who was supposed be looking after us in the residential schools, he was a man,” says Watts. “I never trusted any man. This guy Greg, he was just being nice. At first, I thought he wanted something, because that’s the way I thought, but I went there every day and so slowly I started opening up.”
It was the support of the UGM staff including Greg, that finally got Alex to open himself up to another person, and feel trust again. In the summer of 2008, Greg drove Watts to detox in Chilliwack. During the program, the workers kept Watts in a little longer, as he continued to convince others to stay in the program, when they thought about giving up.
“I didn’t know I was doing service work already,” he says.
“It’s all because of Union Gospel Mission, like Greg, Karen, and Yvonne,” says Watts. “It’s like a breath of fresh air, but I didn’t know it was at the time. My life was on the verge of transforming, but I didn’t know.”
For two weeks Watts waited in Mission, on the waiting list for the UGM Alcohol & Drug recovery program. With the help of his friends, he was able to stay sober for the two weeks before the program, and was admitted.
“I still remember Greg driving me to the front door, and walking me in,” says Watts. “As soon as I walked through the door I knew a whole new life was waiting for me.”
Watts now works with the UGM as a Ministry Support Worker. Talking with those going through the program, and lending support through his own experiences and successes, Watts helps those coming through the doors stay on their path to health and happiness. Before being hired, Watts did the work on his own, sitting in the lobby and helping people to meeting, taking them to the doctor, and lending a hand where ever he could.
“I believe that God works through me,” says Watts. “Working for the UGM is something that’s breathtaking. It’s like a swinging door; even though I’m doing a service for them, I get something from them, and that’s that i see myself in them, whether they’re struggling or not. I helps me, keep me strong.”
As a guide and speaker for this weekend’s Hello Neighbour Project, Watts says he’s happy for the opportunity to show people the side of the Downtown Eastside they don’t know about.
“I believe everybody needs to understand what the DTES is about, not just what they see from the outside looking in,” he says. “I see people who are just like us – of course they struggle with some kind of addiction or mental issue – but I see, bringing people on this tour, I can share some stories of what happens on this tour.”
For example, Watts explains that when a parent is walking their child in the DTES, residents have a tendency to call out “Child on the block,” letting those nearby that they should stop what they’re doing, be it illicit drug use, drinking, etc. so they can walk through.
“That’s a really important part that people need to know,” he says. “It’s not bad what you see. I’ve seen many times them helping each other with clothes, or money, or their next fix. It sounds bad, helping somebody get high, but they are a community. They’re struggling, but they’re still human.”
Editor’s note: This article was amended October 26, 2015. A earlier version stated that Watts was taken from the care of his parents, when he was actually taken from the care of his grandparents. It also stated Watts entered the A&D program at the UGM upon coming to Vancouver, when he in fact entered the program after a two week wait in Mission.