Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I stood at Robson and Burrard and invited people to lunch. I suspect I’d get some strange looks as people would assume I had an ulterior motive.
That’s one of the reasons I love the Downtown Eastside. There isn’t a neighbourhood I know with more people who crave real conversation. As I have said before, the Downtown Eastside is incredibly misunderstood. When Project HELLO began ten years ago, the intent was to find ways for students to help the homeless. Fast forward a decade and my goal has reversed. With Beyond HELLO, my intent is to help the public understand the homeless. My hope is that I can tell the stories of people living in the community and shift the perception of the people living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Today, Hudson (grade 12) and I headed to the streets to find someone to take to lunch. I explained to Hudson that I don’t have a set way of inviting someone to lunch – instead I engage in conversation and usually someone finds us. We started out by entering the Maple Hotel to pay a quick visit to my friend Cindy and pass on a message from her daughter. (For those who have never seen the inside of SRO housing, the word Hotel is deceiving. Imagine stale smoky odours, sticky floors, broken down everything… horrible conditions that would be condemned elsewhere).
After knocking on Cindy’s door and not finding her at home, I left a note at reception (again – don’t imagine a hotel front desk… imagine a cramped space where finding pen and paper is a stretch and the two employees double as security, reception, nursing, food service and building maintenance). As we were about to exit, a gentleman organizing his backpack in the stairwell shouted out “Be good – and always listen to what your parents tell you – they know best”. I laughed and said..”Most of the time – but not always”. I asked if he knew Cindy. He did but hadn’t seen her today. He introduced himself as Lawrence and quickly began to share his history: born in Sooke, struggled with a hard life – worked hard fishing, made some poor choices, spent some time in jail and learned life lessons the hard way. Now at age 51, he wants to make his parents proud. He respects his parents and hopes one day they will see the good in him. He no longer jaywalks since being hit by a car, no longer steals since his grandmother gave him words to live by, and no longer wants to be judged because of his past. We let Lawrence know we were headed to Save on Meats for milkshakes and asked if he would like to join us. He shook his head and said the Ovaltine Cafe is the place to go for milkshakes – even the glasses are better. We smiled and said, then let’s go there.
Lawrence began to worry about his possessions. With no working lock on his door, leaving his possessions behind was not a safe idea. The shelter does not offer storage space so getting ready to head out is an ordeal. On top of this, as we were about to go, he noticed a friend entering the shelter with his bike. His friend’s room is on the 8th floor – and in 30 degree heat, getting a bike up eight flights of stairs is as challenge. He asked if he could help his friend first. We agreed and offered to meet him on Hastings Street once he was ready.
For the next 15 minutes, we handed out bottles of water on the street. When I was about to look for someone else to chat with, Hudson encouraged me to stay saying “I’d feel really bad if we left and he came out two minutes later!” Hudson was right. Two minutes later, out came Lawrence with his life’s possessions – a bike and a shopping cart of supplies: tools, bike parts, spare change, smokes, random supplies and his favourite snack – apple juice and chocolate. With pride he taught us how to wet the side of the juice carton so the chocolate bar label would act as an adhesive and bind them together.
I wondered how Lawrence would travel on foot with so much stuff. He attempted to walk the bike with one hand and the heavy cart with the other. Hudson offered him a hand to assist. Minutes later we walked up Hastings talking while Lawrence guided his bike and Hudson helped by pushing the cart. I asked Hudson if he thought anyone was looking at him strangely. He said no. This doesn’t surprise me in a neighbourhood that if far less judgmental than most.
As we crossed over Main Street, Lawrence paused to point out the building to the North where words of inspiration are etched onto the balconies. Words such as Hope, Dignity, Work and Courage. Each day Lawrence pauses here and finds strength to stay on the right side of the law. Years ago, when his arm was injured, his grandmother told him to get a cart and start collecting bottles. She told him that if he pushed through the pain, he would not only strengthen his arm, he would earn money in a respectable way. He has followed his grandmother’s advice and prides himself on working for his money and no longer stealing from others.
We reached the Ovaltine Cafe to find it was closed. We paused while Lawrence greeted people by name saying hi to most people who passed. He explained that the block east of Main and Hastings is safer and friendlier than the west side…. less chance others would steal from him. Amidst the conversation Lawrence asked me to move my cell phone from the side pocket of my bag to an internal compartment. He didn’t want anyone stealing from me. On what most perceive as BC’s most dangerous street, we once again found respect and kindness.
I worried about Lawrence trying to walk all of his stuff down to Save On Meats. He explained it’s actually easier to ride the bike and push the cart but he would need to go ahead of us. We made plans to meet him there. With grace, he peddled away managing his bike and cart.
As expected, Save on Meats welcomed us to their restaurant, and allowed Lawrence to bring his bike inside, while storing his shopping cart in clear sight of their front window seat. Lawrence excused himself to wash his hands before our meal, and continually thanked us for our time and company. He was thrilled to learn that Hudson was the runner up on Chopped Canada – a teen cooking challenge. As people would pass us he would callout “Do you know who this is?? – He’s from Chopped Canada!”. Lawrence, who likes to cook loved being in the company of a future chef.
We asked Lawrence how he ended up in Vancouver. Self declared a “Sooke boy”, he shared his journey from Sooke to Edmonton where he lived on the streets. He built his own housing equipped with a portable heater and allowed working girls to stay in his hand crafted shelter providing them with a safe place to sleep. He spoke of his flirtatious nature and respect for women – too shy to ‘make a move’ and land himself a new girlfriend. In Edmonton, he met his one long term girlfriend. Together they moved to Vancouver. She entered rehab and his bad choices got him three years behind bars. When he left prison, he reunited with his girlfriend on the DTES. He spoke of his disappointment learning she sold her rings for drugs and had fallen back into her addiction. Soon after the unimaginable happened and his girlfriend was murdered by Robert Pickton.
I asked Lawrence if he would ever leave the Downtown Eastside. He wasn’t sure but for now it’s his home. Disconnected from his family, he spoke of the grief he felt learning he was not invited to his brother’s funeral. From a family of seven, he described himself as the black-sheep of the family. At age 51, he still hopes he can make his parents proud. Unfamiliar with Facebook, he did not realize the ease to finding family. Within minutes I was able to show him pictures of two of his sisters. He teared up and asked me to send them each messages telling them how much he loves them – and letting them know that if any men are bothering them – he’s still willing to step in and kick some ass.
Misunderstood and distrusted, Lawrence feels he is judged by the outside world. While he is open about big mistakes in his past, he is determined to let his grandmother’s words of integrity guide him. As he thanked me for lunch he let me know that he doesn’t shy from hard work and could help me out with yard work if I ever needed it. I asked what he wished the world knew about him. He laughed and said this:
What I wish? Wishing is witchcraft. I don’t believe in wishes. But I do believe in blessings, and my grandmother reminded me I am blessed – and I will see that in my 40’s or 50’s. I am 51 now and I am not who I used to be. I don’t fight, I don’t steal and I collect cans. I am blessed.
He walked with us a while, asking if we really had to go. I promised to connect again in the future and thanked Lawrence for his time and for sharing his story. We spoke of Beyond HELLO and I let him know his story would help others understand. He asked me to check my phone one more time just in case his sisters had replied… I assured him I would be in touch as soon as they do. We said goodbye, and he balanced his bike and shopping cart, clinging to his possessions for comfort in a lonely world.