We all hide sometimes. It’s hard to be vulnerable and share our truth with the world. It’s human to err, and therefore, it’s human to struggle with shame, doubt or fear. We want the world to see the best in us, and sometimes we mask the pain in hopes that the world will see a better version of us than we see in the mirror. We are each a mix of our good days and bad, our regrets and our successes. Nevertheless, we hope the world sees our beauty.
When I visit the Downtown Eastside, I usually give away food as a way to start conversation. Today was different. A friend of mine, Peggy Shires, donated bags of makeup samples. I was able to create 12 makeup bags full of beauty products. Today, my intention was to focus on the women living on Vancouver’s streets and invite one woman to lunch to share her story. Grade 11 student Sophia joined me for the day. We walked the streets, gifting makeup bags, allowing women with irreversible trauma to hide their hurt and apply layers of beauty. Rich or poor, some lipstick and mascara creates the illusion of a happier, prettier self. We hide dark circles, illuminate our skin and show the world the person we want to be. Underneath the sparkle, every woman has a story worth hearing.
Sophia and I made a quick stop at a shelter to check on my dear friend Cindy. Stepping over needles, and waiting patiently for a few to finish their injections in the stairwell, we made it to the fourth floor. We knocked, but the sound of jazz music drowned out our attempt to reach my friend. Within the confines of drugs and despair, Cindy had created her own Saturday sanctuary. We headed back to the streets to find women craving a similar escape.
Vancouver’s roughest street is predominately male, and many women do not walk alone. We approached women surrounded by men and offered them makeup bags. Women would smile, and so would the men knowing it was a gift appreciated by their female friends. As one woman looked up from a cold sidewalk and smiled at us, there was a moment of sisterhood – a moment where we understood makeup would apply some relief to her cruel reality.
As we walked down the sidewalk, a young woman walked towards us. Her skin suggested she has not spent too many years on the streets, yet her slightly disheveled look made it all too obvious that the Downtown Eastside has become home. As we were about to pass, I asked if she would like some makeup, and began to reach in my purse to pull out a cosmetic bag. With slight confusion and a polite smile she said “I would like some, but I’m a little short on cash these days.” I smiled. “Don’t worry – it’s free.” Later at lunch, Breanne reminisced about the moment we met and laughed… “I was confused. You two didn’t look like you would be selling on the street.”
Together, the three of us walked to my favourite restaurant in the DTES – Save on Meats. Breanne has been on the Downtown Eastside for five years. At age 28, she has lost too many friends to fentalyn overdoses. Her ex-boyfriend, Smokey, known for his alleyway graffiti art stays in touch with her and makes sure she is aware, every time a friend dies.
Breanne’s ex boyfriend Smokey D. – as pictured in the Vancouver Sun speaking out on the Fentanyl crisis.
While most of us enjoy running into old friends, Breanne explains there is relief that comes when you see someone who you haven’t seen in a while. You don’t assume they have been busy – you assume Fentanyl has taken lives. She shares the struggles she faced when a more recent ex-boyfriend became abusive. Attempting to chip away at her self esteem, he continually put her down and assured her she would be nothing without him. She eventually laughed realizing she had survived every day before him so she could probably survive the days after him too. Her sense of humour shows her hope and resilience.
Breanne has not always lived in poverty. In fact, her story is far from it. Like a growing number of youth today, her unhappiness comes from an upbringing rich in material goods but lacking in solid connections. Growing up in West Vancouver, she describes her childhood as a bubble – with friends driving luxury vehicles as their first cars. By high school her parents had divorced, her mom had become what she describes as a ‘lush’ drinking a 26er per night, and Breanne had connected with drug dealers and found her way into alternate school. She remembers the kindness of the cop who recognized her from school presentations and was particularly thoughtful after picking her up for her only charge of shoplifting.
These days, Breanne sees herself as a lucky one. She has a job helping others in the safe injection site. She feels a sense of community and has many friends who accept her. She has escaped five years of shelter living and has moved to modular housing in the Olympic Village. She describes the peace she feels without the constant sound of sirens. When she helps clean, she is paid $10 – and in time she may earn a position as a peer kitchen helper in the shared kitchen. She hopes she will be able to bake for others – her favourite pastime. With embarrassment she shows us the ‘cupcake’ tattoo on her arm. She explains the sketch had looked like a cupcake but in her opinion, the tattoo itself looks more like the poo emoji.
Breanne is hopeful that she will be able to see her son soon. At age 10, he is being raised on Vancouver Island by her father and step mother. She beams with pride as she shares a story of her son using his words to solve a dispute on the playground. Breanne is slightly discouraged as she has temporarily lost touch but hopes her twin or two siblings may be able to help get her re-connected. She dreams of a brighter future, with business ideas to help others.
As we shared stories, Breanne sipped her root-beer and rationed her chicken waffles saving half for later. She calls us ‘refreshing’ for promoting good in the neighbourhood. We asked our waiter to take our picture celebrating our new friendship. Breanne pauses for a second “Oh wait – let me put some makeup on first.” A little gloss is all she needs to hide her pain and show beauty to the outside world.