Trash sales save livelihoods in Downtown Eastside

Trash sales save livelihoods in Downtown Eastside

Pop-up market delivers social benefits


VANCOUVER – Every Sunday, Bruce Sauer bundles up old videos, audio equipment, jewellery boxes and hand-carved pipes and carts his wares to no-ordinary garage sale in a Vancouver park.

Sale of the items represents more than just a sizable chunk of income for him in one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods.

“Instead of going and standing in the food lines, it gives you dignity,” said Sauer, while surrounded by fellow vendors in the small space he’s claimed. “You invest in a little store when you come out here and you make a couple hundred (dollars) a week. It’s good for the area.”

Sauer, an aging man with an eye patch and white beard, joins dozens of hawkers once a week in a place called Pigeon Park in the city’s Downtown Eastside. Anyone residing in the area is permitted to set up shop in the market that’s been established by local volunteers with permission of the city.

Running for at least 215 consecutive Sundays since 2010, the pop-up market delivers considerable social benefits that organizers say range from improved-personal welfare to saving the environment.

Paying no vending fees, individuals who live in low-income housing and homeless shelters sell goods that organizers estimate bring in at least $10,000 each Sunday.

“Which is more than half-a-million dollars a year put in the hands of the lowest-income vendors in the poorest postal code in Canada,” said coordinator Roland Clark. “We think it’s a very significant social program. And we run it for a fraction of the cost.”

The market’s operating budget is derived from a $30,000 City of Vancouver grant, of which Clark said $550 is spent each week. He said organizers are working with the city to establish a more-permanent venue.

Wandering through the market reveals a colourful assortment of items, though consumers may wonder whether their sources were legitimate.

An Xbox 360 video game console can be spotted amongst neatly folded blue jeans, old-school records, tools and old toasters. Three years ago, someone was hawking an ultrasound machine.

“It’s incredible what people throw into the trash, which is how most of the stuff becomes scrap here,” said Clark, decked out in a neon crossing-guard uniform.

Organizers are constantly on alert for the potential that stolen goods could be mixed into the neat and not-so-neat piles, and the sale of perishables like meat and cheese is strictly forbidden, he said.

“We have to chase the people out.”

The market will be setting up a heightened perimeter to limit the sale of stolen paraphernalia after garnering a new grant from the city to hire independent security. Soon, they’ll also launch an ID program outfitting vendors with photo credentials and tags to cut down on illegal activity.

Clark estimates that between 5,000 and 10,000 people peruse the stalls, pavement displays and blanketed tables each week, with sales diverting anywhere from 20 to 100 tonnes from the landfill annually.

The idea to create a sanctioned yard sale was conceived four years ago as a community response — and protest — towards heightened ticketing of illegal street vending before the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, he said.

Some 25 people were vending when the market began, but that has now grown to about 200 vendors, said Mary-Clare Zak, the city’s managing director of social policy.

She said the city does not sanction any illegal activity, and the grant money has been given with an explicit understanding.

“The purpose of it is really to increase and improve their security, their operations at the market and mitigate any attempts to sell stolen goods,” Zak said. “And in that way, too, it improves their image, because they see themselves as an entity they would like to grow.”

Vendor Darlene Michell used to sell goods from a rolling cart on the street and must attend court after being ticketed at least twice.

If the market didn’t exist, she’d have no other option but to risk more tickets, she said.

“It means making money,” she said, noting she can earn upwards of $100 on a successful day. “It’s good they have it out here for the local people that live out here, because we really do need it. It’s our source of income and our livelihood.”

—with files from Tamsyn Burgmann