Jenn Potter, the guide accused of “poverty tourism” for running tours in Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside, wants to set the story straight.
Despite the positive view of the travel article, on Facebook, many commenters labelled her a “creep,” her tour “disgusting” and said she was “exploiting misery” with “poverty tourism.”
In a phone interview, Potter told Daily Hive this was exactly the opposite of what she was trying to do.
“I am nowhere near that, I’m totally against that. It’s against my morals,” she said. “I would never want to reduce people’s dignity.”
That view is backed up by Sara Cooke, director of communications for Tours By Locals, the tour company for whom Potter freelances.
“This idea of poverty tourism is abhorrent to us,” Cooke told Daily Hive. “As compassionate Vancouverites, we would never hope to turn a profit from other people’s suffering.”
Potter and Cooke said that although advertised, the tour has not yet been purchased by any visitors and they have only shown around interested journalists so far.
Faced with criticism over the high cost, which was set by Potter, they say half the money covers food and drinks bought for the tour group. And although it is not mentioned in the listing, both Potter and Cooke say the rest of the proceeds will be donated to a DTES organization.
Due to the level of harassment Potter has received, however, she declined to identify the organization for fear of bringing harassment on them too.
Potter runs tours all over Vancouver, and says she always takes visitors on other tours through the DTES on the way to Gastown, rather than avoiding it, as she says other guides do.
Cooke echoes that sentiment.
“It would be wrong to skip the Downtown Eastside – it’s an important part of the city.”
Potter says visitors on other tours began asking about the businesses they saw as they passed through the DTES, and she soon began to frequent them with her clients.
When a journalist asked her about social enterprise in the area she decided to turn it into a tour of its own.
“I can’t change the world,” she said. “But what I can do is give visitors something a little positive.
“I’m very proud of the businesses in the community that are doing great things for social enterprise. Social enterprise gives people dignity.”
Cooke, who says she has been on the tour with Potter, says it’s about showing the positive change these businesses are enabling in the community.
“We don’t think the onus should be only on governments and agencies. We want to raise awareness of the fact they’re doing good work and we want to support that.”
According to Potter and Cook, on arrival at the businesses taking part, visitors are supplied with food and drinks, and speak with the owners about how the business works.
This is backed up by Shelley Bolton, manager of East Van Roasters, which gives training and employment to the women who live in the nearby Rainier Hotel.
The Rainier Hotel provides shelter and treatment for marginalized women on the Downtown Eastside, who have a mental health diagnosis and substance dependency.
Bolton says Potter is a regular customer and has helped sort cacao beans with them several times before, as well as bringing in media and people interested in their social enterprise.
“There have been a handful of groups over the past couple of years,” Bolton told Daily Hive. “If one of the staff is available, we will answer questions about our program and about chocolate making.”
Bolton said visitors on the tours often buy “suspended drinks” that are served to community members later at no charge, and there are other benefits too.
“It provides an opportunity to see first hand how non-profits and small businesses are creatively holding onto spaces and employing community members within the DTES,” she said.
“If [this] helps to spark interest to open social enterprises in other communities, then it is beneficial for those communities as well.”
DTES community activist Roland Clarke says a tour like Potter’s could create very positive outcomes, but also has the possibility of doing a lot of damage.
“Is there a realistic portrayal of the causes of poverty and addiction, or is it essentially a safari trip to the dark side?… It all depends on how the issues and people are portrayed.”
Clarke says anyone explaining the Downtown Eastside to visitors needs to go further than the positive impact of social enterprises – they need to address the negative too.
“It is important to point out that there are many downsides to their ‘help’ sometimes,” said Clarke, citing the example of social housing, which can leave residents feeling trapped. “This should be honestly discussed.”
Clarke also says visitors should be made fully aware of the way that non-profits are being funded, and of the whole funding landscape in the Downtown Eastside.
“This is important because many organizations will talk up the few success stories that they have achieved when, if one examines the cost, it may have been tragically unsuccessful.”
While the issue is a complicated one though, Clarke ultimately believes it’s good to be talking about it.
“For me, I would never advocate that information is bad, and would always argue that shining a light on issues can only create meaningful dialogue.”
Jeremy Hunka, with the Union Gospel Mission, says the charity has run its own guided walks of the Downtown Eastside, free to the public, in years past.
The Mission provides meals, education, shelter, treatment and support to those struggling with homelessness and addiction in Vancouver, particularly in the DTES.
Hunka said the Mission’s guided walks were led by low-income residents of the Downtown Eastside, who received a stipend for sharing their stories and educating the public.
“If someone wants to educate themselves on the Downtown Eastside, we would encourage that,” he said.
“Ideally, it will inspire change, it will inspire empowerment, it will spotlight some of the good that is ongoing, and also showcase some of the hard work that we can all do that still needs to be done.”
However, says Hunke, it’s crucial to maintain dignity and respect,
“We definitely want to avoid the fishbowl effect, people shouldn’t be on display, especially if they’re feeling desperate or just down and out,” he said.
This is especially important in the Downtown Eastside, he says.
“The DTES is one of the few places that people struggling from poverty issues and addiction don’t feel judged,” he said.
“If you have a constant flow of tourists who are hoping to take it in, that runs the risk of driving people further away from the help that’s offered.”
Daily Hive reached out to all the businesses named as stops on Potter’s tour in the Toronto Star travel article. Not all had responded by the time of publication.
However, it should be noted that, although they are mentioned, Karma Teachers is not an official stop on the tour and founder Emerson Lim says he has no affiliation to Potter.
In fact, Potter says, she usually takes visitors to One Yoga. Both organizations offer by donation yoga sessions for Downtown Eastside residents.
The confusion came, Potter says, because she diverted the tour for one day, when she found One Yoga was closed and instead visited Karma Teachers, because she knew it well.
In the case of both yoga studios, says Potter, all visits were made between classes, with the permission of an instructor, and involved an explanation of how the business worked.
Among the other businesses Potter visits on her tour of the Downtown Eastside, perhaps the one most experienced in international tourism is Skwachàys Lodge.
Canada’s first Aboriginal art hotel, it offers not only regular lodging for visitors, it also 24 shelter rate apartments for Aboriginal people at risk of homelessness.
Maggie Edwards, general manager, says having a respectful, ongoing conversation is imperative and Potter is doing that as someone who wants to boost the Downtown Eastside.
“Our biggest benefit is exposure of our project and social enterprise as a viable business model,” she said.
“Members of the Aboriginal community make up a large percentage of the homeless that frequent the streets of the DTES. We are trying to be one of the ways to create a solution to that problem.”
In the end, for Edwards, the furore over the controversial tour is nothing compared to the bigger picture.
“The poverty exists whether Jenn brings tours here or not…
“There is also so much good that is happening on the DTES. Having the benefit of showcasing that is a positive thing in my world.”