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Meet Distro Disco, the Mobile Store Distributing Life-Saving Essentials in the DTES

“There should not have to be a service like this, but it is so desperately needed,” says Charlie Hannah of Distro Disco. After years of working in and around the DTES, Hannah began holding supply drives for unhoused communities formed during the pandemic. “Through doing that work, we gained knowledge about where the best deals are for specific needs that people have—like tarps and tents,” says Hannah. “We were gathering donations and bringing them straight to the camps.” 

But distributing resources this way only allowed them to serve one location, and Hannah had a bigger vision in mind. “I thought, What if we could have a mobile service that could show up in a different unhoused communities at a particular time, with the same sort of inventory, and also take requests?” they say. So in January 2021, Distro Disco was born: a traveling material resource centre based out of a 1981 GMC Vandura. 

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Since then, the Distro Disco team has grown to 24 volunteers and a network of donors. “This is very much a group and community effort, and that extends to everyone who donates both material resources and money to us,” says Hannah. “It’s been very inspiring to see how people are stepping up and showing up for their unhoused neighbours.” Many donations come from the local film community, which is the industry Hannah works in. 

“There is so much waste in film—the wardrobe department, the art department and crafty,” explains Hannah, “so when shows or commercials wrap, people give us things they aren’t using anymore.” They note that donating to Distro Disco has a much more positive impact than donating to for-profit businesses like Value Village. 

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And when it comes to donations, Distro Disco is big on transparency—they have a running document that details all of their spending. “It’s important to be transparent about where your funds are going, especially with fundraising that happens through social media,” they say. “It’s nice to keep people in the loop about how they are contributing and where that money is going.” 

Distro Disco’s donation guide details not only the most needed resources, but the best places to buy them. The volunteer team is making it as easy as possible for folks who want to get involved. And right now, what they really need is new wheels. “The camper van is a fun vehicle, but it’s really not reliable at all,” says Hannah. The leaky roof, rotting wood around the door frame and classic engine trouble you get with most 40+ year old vehicles is not ideal. “We are afraid that it will break down one day and we’ll have to halt our distribution.” 

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On top of their monthly donation drive (on the first Saturday of every month, the next one is April 2), Distro Disco just released a T-shirt fundraiser designed by Courtney Presber and printed by Annie Axtell. The shirts are being sold on a sliding scale ($30-$60) and will be available for pickup at the donation drive on the 2. 

Hannah stresses Distro Disco’s role as a harm reduction unit: “We carry harm reduction supplies for people who use drugs, camping gear—that’s all a form of harm reduction.” It’s harm reduction that our housing crisis has made a necessity. And while the community and donor response to the mobile service has been positive, Hannah underlines the need for political leaders to make tangible change.

“Services like this need to exist because people are literally sleeping on the wet sidewalk with a sheet on them,” they say. “This can’t continue. The provincial and the municipal governments really need to step up and do something about housing.”