Five years ago, my students and I began Project H.E.L.L.O. (Helping Everyone Locate Loved Ones). Each year at Christmas and Mothers’ Day we head to the streets of the Downtown Eastside and invite the homeless to reach out and re-connect with friends or family who they may have lost touch with by sending one of our handmade greeting cards. We then return to the schools and use the internet and phones to search for families. To date, we have successfully connected over 300 homeless people with loved ones through cards, phone calls and a special face to face reunion.
The experience has been life changing, as we have gained so much more than we have given. We have experienced many moments we will never forget, when the rough edges of the Eastside dissipate for a minute, and individuals search their soul to find just the right words to say to their long lost family. We have listened to heartbreaking stories of addiction, abuse, family breakdown and mental health, yet we have also left feeling inspired by the resilience, hope and love that still exists. We have cried with parents and children overwhelmed to hear from their loved one for the first time in years. And other times, we have mailed cards, never truly knowing the impact. What we do know, is that each person on the DTES has a story. A story that explains their life and makes them truly unique. A story that I believe is worth hearing. For when we understand, we judge less.
Today was day one of ‘Beyond HELLO’. The idea was simple. I would head to the DTES on a hot day and hand out water. I would then invite one person to go for lunch at Save On Meats Diner, and over lunch, I would ask them some deeper questions to understand their life story. With their permission, I would share their story and explain that our goal is to help the public understand the people of the DTES and treat them with the compassion and respect they deserve. I invited David Jennings to join me. David is a student at the University of Alberta, and one of the students who began Project HELLO with me five years ago. With two cases of water, an iPad with some thoughtful questions and some good intention we headed to the streets of the Downtown Eastside.
David and I are both familiar with the streets of the DTES as we have visited the neighbourhood dozens of times with Project HELLO, so it caught us both off guard as we approached with trepidation, not knowing what to expect. How would we invite someone to lunch? How would we decide whom to choose? What would we say? We decided to load two bags full of water and walk the streets. We decided that when the moment felt right for either of us, we would ask. After two blocks, and brief encounters, we approached a lady who appeared in need. She stood alone on the street, with ragged clothing, and unkempt hair. When we offered her a bottle of water, she accepted but said what she really needed was money for a meal as she was starving. We replied by saying we were just headed out for lunch and we would love for her to join us at Save on Meats if she was interested. She thought for a second and then accepted our invitation. Seeming somewhat ashamed to be with us, or to accept our offer, she walked ahead of us at a rapid pace. I asked her her name, and she replied with one word – Cindy. We introduced ourselves and for the next few minutes we walked behind her, offering water to others as we made our way to the restaurant. Both David and I had the same feeling. We had selected the wrong person. She appeared somewhat erratic on the streets, crossing through intersections diagonally and attempting to ignore or avoid any small talk with us. The thought crossed my mind to offer her money to eat and find someone else to join us.
As we entered the alcove of the Save On Meats diner, things changed. Overcome with emotion, Cindy experienced a mental breakdown. She turned to us and frantically explained that she had no idea who we were or why we were there, but that she was highly suicidal. She feared for her life because of a drug debt and believed today was the day she would die of murder or suicide. In a rage of emotion she frantically explained her suicidal ideation repeatedly telling us she had decided that today was the day. She could not understand why we had chosen to help her. David and I helped her with the door, and asked the waitress for a table for three. We acknowledged the stress Cindy was under and motioned for her to come in and sit with us so we could try and help. Again overcome with emotion, and with fear in her eyes, she flung herself into the booth and she began to open up… Here’s how it began…
Cindy admits to us that she is an addict. She calls herself a junkie and knows her addiction has the best of her. She is also HIV positive and now has full blown AIDS. Her extremities are swollen and inflamed, and her right leg is incredibly infected. Her body is in septic shock. She knows she is nearing death and that she should be in the hospital. She knows it is time for her leg to be amputated, but she is scared. Hospitalized recently, she tells us how she yanked her tubes out and escaped back to the Downtown Eastside so she could feed her addiction.
With fear and tears in her eyes, she explains that she has cheated a friend to get her last hit of heroin. She owes the dealer twenty dollars, and if she does not pay, she knows that either she or her friend will be physically beaten. Looking in her eyes, I know the fear is real. She fixates on suicide and the need to jump off a bridge. She also shares thoughts of robbing the bank down the street as these two options appear to be her only escape. She has never robbed a bank before, but knows it has been robbed by others so she is willing to try in an attempt to get the 20 and avoid putting her friend at risk. Although I never give money out on the DTES, something tells me this is different, and that Cindy is telling us the truth. I hear myself say to Cindy that things will be ok. We will help take some of the stress off her, let her have a good meal, relax for a while and after lunch I will give her the 20 to pay her debt. Cindy starts to relax, but is still overcome with fear of what may happen to her friend. The waitress approaches and Cindy orders a coke, a strawberry shake, a burger and fries. She then sheepishly asks if she could have the $20 right away, so she can go take care of the debt before lunch as she cannot relax knowing her friend is in jeopardy. I hear myself agree and hand Cindy $20. As David and I sit together in the booth, we quickly reflect, both wondering if she will return. I ask David if he believes her story, and in complete agreement, he says, yes – you can see it in her eyes.
Five minutes later, Cindy returns. A weight has been lifted off her shoulders and she cannot believe we have helped her. With panic gone, we begin to see the real Cindy, and begin a great two hour conversation. Cindy is almost speechless, wondering why we have chosen her to help. David and I explain project HELLO and through conversation we realize that we have found family members of two of her friends. We use David’s phone to show Cindy pictures of her friends Rosemary and Sandra, and tell her about the connections we have helped them make. She is in disbelief and again thanks us sincerely. She again explains that today was the day. She had chosen today to die, and was standing on the street contemplating suicide. Right before we approached her, her thoughts were shouting out that no one in this entire world cared about her. Looking in our eyes with a calmness and softness that had not existed on the streets, she tells us that she feels a higher power is at work today as we are exactly what she needed. Through tears of appreciation she tells us that we seem so real and so grounded and she can not believe we have picked her to join us for lunch. We thank her for her words, and explain to her that this is our first day of ‘Beyond HELLO’ and she is the first person who seemed like they could use some company and a good meal.
As our food arrives, Cindy excuses herself to wash her hands. Feeling like the presentation is not appropriate for a suicidal woman, I remove the knife that is projecting from Cindy’s burger. She returns with wet hands and embraces her burger and milkshake with childlike wonder. Although she has lived across the street for twenty years, this is the first time she has been in the restaurant, and the first time in years that she has ordered from a menu. Despite her appearance the wait staff treat her with respect and it seems like Cindy is no different than anyone else in the restaurant.
Through lunch I explain to Cindy how her story can inspire others. I acknowledge the heart and spirit that we can see and the life she has within her. Together we agree that today is not her day to die. I too don’t know why she stood out to us on the streets, but we all recognize that a reason exists for us to come together. I invite her to tell us her story and ask permission to share it so others can understand the people of the DTES and the circumstances of their lives. She looks at us with pride and disbelief, moved by the glimmer of hope that her story could make a difference to others. She is honoured and willing to share….
Cindy moved to the DTES at the age of 16. She was born to a middle class family in Oshawa, Ontario. Her mom has a hard working woman who was very health conscious. Cindy stops and says to me that I remind her of her mom. I laugh and tell her that I’m in the middle of eating French fries so I can’t be a health nut. She laughs too and tells me her mom likes French fries too but would only allow herself to have one. As I continue to eat my fries she continues. She does not give us details but alleges to an abusive step father as one of the reasons for the move. Before moving to BC she gave birth to her daughter who she gave up for adoption as she did not have any means to provide for her. Cindy mentions that she has always wanted to find her daughter but she wants to clean herself up first. She has thought of reaching out to an agency to help but wants to be drug free to make her daughter proud. Unfortunately she has been in and out of rehabilitation programs, and although she has gotten herself clean twice over the past decade, the lure of the drugs in the neighbourhood always draws her back. In the early days she worked the streets of Vancouver, caught in a vicious cycle of prostitution and addiction. She speaks of an organization from twenty years ago called the Teen Challenge that really reached out and connected with her. She says that we remind her of the people who helped her then as she feels so comfortable opening up with us.
She also speaks of her son who she gave birth to in 1991 with her boyfriend who still lives in the DTES as well. She lost guardianship of her son and she believes he is now in Montreal. She spells his name for us and I ask David to check Facebook. Within minutes, we have her son’s Facebook profile on David’s phone, with a matching name and birthday. For the first time in over 20 years, Cindy is looking at her son’s face. She is overcome with joy and holds the phone cheek to cheek asking us if we can see a resemblance. She explains that her son’s father tried to hurt her recently by yelling out his balcony at her saying their son was in jail for sexual assault. She says she hates to think her son would be capable of that and she wonders if it’s the father’s way of trying to hurt her. David and I decide not to tell her that the Facebook post on his page from a friend says ‘Are you still in jail?’
Cindy tells us about her living conditions in her government funded building. Despite her need for cleanliness, she cannot help but feel the walls are closing in as bugs swarm her tiny apartment entering through the ventilation system. The smell of chemical fumes is overwhelming. The hallways have blood stains and splatters on the walls and door handles. Broken needles are prevalent and her foot is extremely infected from the tip of a needle that is lodged within her foot. Her leg is red and purple, three times the size it should be and covered in a rash up to her knee. She walks with a limp because of the pain. She tells us about another tenant who has beaten her regularly. She also speaks of an ex boyfriend who lived with her for a while. Four years ago they too had a child together, another girl, but the baby was taken into ministry care. When she speaks of her children you can see the shame she feels yet the eternal love of a mother who never stops worrying about her kids is also evident. She knows she does not have long to live but wishes she could let them know how much she loves them. David and I take down the correct spelling and details around each of her three children and promise to share her story and send love if we can find them.
As we finish lunch, Cindy is again in tears. Her vocabulary and world knowledge is impressive as she explains that her actions as an addict do not align with her moral fibre. She knows she has hurt people to feed her addiction and she is so ashamed as she knows that underneath she is a good strong person. She also knows that she does not have long to live. She knows her doctor wants her to be at St. Pauls Hospital in the AIDS ward. She knows she will die there. When she talks about her recent run from the hospital she explains she was not mentally ready. She knows her time is almost up but she wants to be at peace with herself and heal some wounds with others. She talks abut whether or not this is a selfish pursuit. She explains that she often thinks of people in Auschwitz who died in Concentration Camps. If they were not given time to mentally prepare for death, why should she be afforded such a luxury? She wrestles with this though but wants to find peace before she dies.
As the waitress brings us the bill, Cindy seems at peace. She asks to use the washroom and returns completely cleaned up. Her hair is wet from quick wash and is now tied in a pony tail off her face. She has cleaned her face and hands and mentions she has even washed her feet in the sink. With a new lightness of spirit, she tells us she no longer feels alone, and she believes she is ready to go to the hospital. I ask if she would like an ambulance or if she would like a ride to St. Paul’s. Cindy then pauses, and asks if she can ask us for one final request. We invite her to share.
“Can we please take a detour on the way to the hospital. Can we go for a drive so I can see the ocean one more time before I die?”
“Yes – I think that’s a great idea. How about we drive through Stanley Park first?”
“Oh- can we stop for a minute so I can put my feet in the ocean? And could you please take my picture there and share it with my family?”
“Yes. I think that’s a wonderful idea. I think you are ready to do that”.
As I pay the bill, Cindy excuses herself for a smoke break outside. We join her minutes later and point to my car two blocks away along Hastings, an all too familiar street for Cindy.
We approach my car and let Cindy know she can have the front seat. She mentions her stomach is doing flips. Perhaps it’s the nerves, perhaps it’s the milkshake, coke, fries and burger that are hard on her system that usually gets by with so much less. We stand outside my car and the sights, smells and passerby’s of Hastings surround us. Drawn by her addiction, Cindy looks at me with one hand on the car door and asks if she can please have $20 for one more hit or some T3’s to stop the pain. I say no. Cindy then asks for $10. Then $7 and then $5. She needs her drugs before she leaves so she can self administer them while at the hospital. I look her in the eyes telling her I will not give her money to feed the addiction. The hospital staff have the medication she needs. Caught in turmoil, she is paralyzed. I tell her I can take her to the ocean, I can take her to the hospital but I will not give her money. Our eyes meet and we both feel the pain, knowing that the Cindy we got to know has surrendered to the addiction once again. Her need for just one more hit is stronger than her willpower to escape. I hear myself say “Cindy, I think it’s time we should go.” And I know by looking at her that she feels the shame of another broken relationship. David and I get in the car. We sit and wait for a minute in case she can find the strength. Knowing she is not ready, I drive away slowly, with the image in my rearview mirror of Cindy hunched over the parking meter, forever burned in my mind.
Tonight, after returning home, I have located Cindy’s mom and her daughter who she gave up for adoption. Through Facebook we have located pictures of her mom, son and daughter. Her daughter is a spitting image of Cindy yet they have never met. I have sent messages to the mother and daughter, explaining ‘Beyond HELLO’ asking them to contact me about Cindy. At the very least, I can provide Cindy with pictures of her family. Perhaps her wish will come true and she can connect with family before she dies. Late this evening, I feel a small miracle occurred. After noticing that her daughter has not been active on Facebook for over six months, I decided to click on her ‘Friends’ tab with the intention of picking a random stranger to help me connect. I then noticed the (1 mutual friend) notation under one of her friend’s photos. By a strange coincidence, her daughter is friends with a man in Ontario who is friends with one of my ex-students. This same student actually approached me last year about spreading the word of Project HELLO in Ontario. We have now connected and he too hopes that the mutual friend can reach Cindy’s daughter for us. I do not know what will come of today’s lunch, but I am grateful to Cindy for having the courage to share her story and her willingness to share with the world. There is good reason to go Beyond HELLO.