There is something different about Marty. He’s not like my other homeless friends. Strangely enough, most homeless people I meet are actually quite happy with who they are. Despite a list of regrets or painful memories, they exude strength and resilience, perhaps necessary traits to survive on Vancouver’s Skid Row. They seem to have come to terms with who they are, with mistakes they have made, and with pasts they may choose to forget. They live in a neighborhood that does not judge. Everyone has a story – and no one is expected to be perfect. Perhaps this is what makes it bearable to live in the Downtown Eastside. For Marty, the streets do not seem bearable.
I met Marty last week. My principal, Sean Nosek and I were downtown for a conference and decided to stop on East Hastings on the way home to go Beyond HELLO. Consistent with my previous experiences, we did not have to find someone to take to lunch. Marty found us. While many people wander the streets of the Downtown Eastside, Marty stood still. Almost like a sculpture or a mime – frozen in form at the corner of Hastings and Abbott. The light shone green, the walk sign illuminated but Marty stood still as he really had nowhere to go. He did not ask for money, but he did ask for coffee. We explained we were going for lunch and asked if he would like to join us. He looked at us and said “Save On Meats”? Perfect, as that is exactly where we had hoped to go.
Marty was exhausted. He does not use the local shelters, in fear that he will lose his belongings when he sleeps – a fear common to Vancouver’s homeless. I asked where he had slept last night. With dreary eyes, he explained he hadn’t. He had gone to Tim Hortons to stay warm but had to stay standing all night. A time limit is enforced for those who sit, but standing is apparently OK. I asked where he usually sleeps. He explained that he tries to live at the Washington Hotel. Marty’s face lit up as he described the room. He described it with the same enthusiasm you or I would use to describe a five star hotel. He explained that for $10 / night you get a private room that comes with a bare mattress on the floor. For $50 you can rent the room for a week.
I asked Marty about his income – and if he gets paid monthly. He explained he was cut off from payments. He has no income. Whether Marty does not qualify for funding, or whether he just doesn’t have the skills to navigate the system – I’m not sure. Regardless, Marty is probably the purest form of homeless of those I have met. He truly has nothing. And yet, Marty is more than a shell. Marty is like a cloudy day where the sun fights to poke through – and in short bursts, light and warmth escape.
Marty is from Calgary, Alberta. He came to Vancouver in his 40’s after his marriage ended. He had spent long days working on the oilrigs and unfortunately life did not turn out as planned. I asked if he had children – to which he offered an extended pause. The question alone caused a shift in his eyes, where he clouded over and stared into the distance. I regretted asking, as it had caused pain, yet after a couple minutes of silence he replied with “yes, a daughter”. I asked how old she would be, and with no hesitation his eyes sparkled quickly, his lips curved upward and he proudly reported, “She’s ten”. Knowing that Marty is now 61, and that he has been on the Downtown Eastside for sometime, I believe that his daughter will be ten forever to him. Likely this is the last time he saw her, and the last vivid memory of a happier time. Like many who experience trauma, Marty is stuck. And yet Marty has a glimmer of hope. Marty has a brother – a brother whom he believes would help him – or at least offer the funding to provide him with shelter. Marty wants his brother to know he is looking for him – he wants his brother to be in contact. Despite his exhaustion and despair hope appeared when I offered to find his brother and he blurted out “That would be great!” His brother is a teacher named David Edmunds, teaching somewhere in Alberta. So far, I have not found David, but I’m hoping by sharing this story, someone will know how to reach him.
As we finished our lunch, Marty seemed to drift in and out of alertness. At times he would smile and chuckle, where other times he would seem miles away. Conversation ranged from serious and intellectual to childlike and simple. Like many on the downtown Eastside, Marty appeared to struggle with his mental health – but perhaps the pure exhaustion was to blame. Knowing that he needed sleep more than anything else, we agreed to pay for two nights stay at the Washington Hotel. With genuine thanks, Marty finished his steak, eggs and coffee. We agreed to be in touch, should we find his brother. As we were about to say goodbye, Mark Brand, owner of Save on Meats, walked into his restaurant. True to his reputation, he walked over to our table and greeted Marty, making it clear he was just as welcome as every other guest. Marty smiled in recognition and waved hello, knowing that for once, he belonged.