The Twisted Tranquility of the Downtown Eastside


Jenna and I with our new friend Stacey.

Meet Stacey.  Like the complexity of Hastings Street, he is a mix of darkness and light.  Scarred by the trauma of war, he now fights an inner battle of self acceptance.  He grew up in Saskatchewan, the youngest of three boys.  His dad died at age 10.  School was a struggle, and the military provided the guidance and structure he needed.  However nothing could have prepared him for war in Afghanistan.  Ten years later, he cannot erase the images: families with young children living in caves, eleven year old war soldiers, friends lost in combat.  The desire to help and protect his closest friends gave him the courage to return two times, fighting for our country.

But like so many veterans of war, there is a silent battle that begins upon the return home.  Anger.  Confusion.  Nightmares.  Difficulty fitting in.  No one that truly understands.  Struggling with emotion, his anger got the best of him.  His own mother feared him, his personal relationships deteriorated and eventually he spent time in a psychiatric ward where he was convinced all other patients were snipers. Eventually the delusions subsided but the pain remains.

Looking for a new life, Stacey tried a  variety of jobs in Vancouver: construction, moving furniture, living on a berry field, and raising and selling Rotweillers. He fell in and out of homelessness – not for a lack of skill, but more from a lack of purpose. Now on disability, Stacey is unable to work, and unfortunately unable to find housing.  He tried living in BC Housing’s SRO’s (single room occupancy), but the living conditions make the streets look favourable.  Until last month he lived at the Cobalt. It was rough, with a neighbour who stole from him continually and sanitary conditions that he refused to share in fear he would ruin our lunch together.   One evening last month his anger got the best of him.  He won the physical fight with the neighbour but faced eviction as a consequence.  He has tried shelters, but he can’t keep his possessions safe while he sleeps, so instead, he finds shelter in Vancouver’s back alleys.  He has found a best friend, and explains the streets are safer in pairs.  Together they share an alcove that they have declared theirs, and they take turns guarding each others possessions.  Their loyalty is strong, and key for survival, yet they just met last week. Despite circumstances, both Stacey and his friend Neufie share some childlike wonder.  As we met them in the middle of Pigeon Square today, they were playfully shooting a bow and arrow through the courtyard.

Beyond Stacey’s dark side, there is so much good within.  He describes his mother as his best friend, and speaks of one day moving back to Saskatchewan to be closer to her.  He marvels at his 20 year old daughters beauty and brains.  He shared her name and together we found her on Facebook and scrolled through beautiful photos.  I asked if he would like to send a message.  He smiled and said he didn’t need to – he is in touch.  He considers moving to Alberta as well to be closer to his daughter.

After Afghanstan, Stacey knows the value of life.  He is frustrated by those around him who take life for granted.  He recognizes that he is living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and each day is a blessing.  After being homeless in most major cities in Canada, he describes Vancouver as the kindest.  One day a family gave him a new coat.  As they drove away, the son yelled “Check the pockets!”.  He did – and found a $20 in each pocket – for a total of $400.  He also spoke of a wealthy man in Vancouver who periodically brings a limo to the DTES and hands $50 bills out the window.  For Stacey, moments like that matter.   Contrarily, he is completely offended (as am I) by the growing number of tour companies that include Hastings Street as an attraction on their city tour where tourists stare through the windows as they pass by the homeless.

There is an irony to Stacey that I like.  He’s the first person I have taken to lunch who actually used the word ‘homeless’ to describe himself, yet he might be the strongest of the people I have met.  He spoke of the neighbourhood as home for now, but he doesn’t see it in his future.  He spoke of who he would help if he won the lottery, and when I asked where he would be in five years, he answered “a long way from here”.  Unlike others, Stacey described the neighbourhood like he too is analyzing it from the outside looking in.  He opened up more than most and explained the ins and outs of the neighbourhood to us – the difference between each block; where each type of drug is sold; the gang activity and boundaries; the way debts are paid; and the unwritten code of conduct that treats men, women and children differently on the same streets.  I shared my experience of feeling more accepted into the neighbourhood when I come with other women versus men – and he instantly confirmed – “Yes, that’s much safer.  We all watch out for the women and defend them if they are in trouble”.  He also spoke about the rule to call out “Kids on the Block” each time kids are spotted nearby.  (something I have heard numerous times).  I have noticed the language cleans up, and Stacey confirmed the unwritten rule to hide the drugs so no children see the drug activity.  Despite the darkness, there is still heart and a genuine kindness, especially towards kids.

So what keeps a man like Stacey on the streets?  Like most stories of the Downtown Eastside, the answers are much deeper than we assume.  For Stacey it’s not the poverty or addiction that keeps him there.  I suspect it’s the inner battle of acceptance, and renewing his own sense of worth.  The Downtown Eastside offers a twisted tranquility to lost souls – an escape from reality and a solace where everyone fits in. As Stacey said goodbye, he left with intention – a plan to walk up to Carnegie centre to call his mom and his daughter.  Maybe one day, when the time is right,  he will return to his family.  For now, Stacey is homeless, but he has found his home.

Jenna, age 18, joined me for Beyond HELLO.  With her permission, here are some of her thoughts:

Today was such a powerful experience. Of course I had heard of stories through our work with Project HELLO but I hadn’t  sat down with someone in a small setting and actually gotten to know them. It’s hard to describe my first impression of Stacey. I guess I would say that he was nice and willing to talk to us. Once he said he would come for lunch, I honestly didn’t know what to expect but he opened right up telling us everything about himself. I felt comfortable just chatting with him and I loved that he felt comfortable with us. One thing I found super interesting is that he trusted his buddy that he had known a week to watch his stuff for him.  As he told us his story I found it powerful that for one he trusted us, and two that he served in the army for our country 3 times, and that he is now on the streets. I just don’t see how that is right. When he came back he needed help and yes, he got some but I feel like there might not be enough programs for the soldiers coming back. When you asked him if he was offered enough help i couldn’t believe it when he explained that there really wasn’t enough help.  Our veterans deserve so much more.

At the beginning of March I started a gratitude journal and every night I write 5 things that I am grateful for. Today meeting Stacey made me grateful. It made me grateful for what I have and grateful for my new understanding that really anyone can end up there. He has a beautiful daughter and family that love him yet he ended up down there… Life can take you in so many directions. I still haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of how I am feeling but I cant stop thinking about him. It might have to do with the fact that we sit in our warm houses right now while he is out in the cold.

All I can say is I feel empowered from everything he said. I learned alot from Stacey and for that I will forever be grateful to him.  Thanks for a great day! I learned so much from such a small act of kindness.

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