Dignity: /ˈdɪɡ·nɪ·t̬i/ The quality of a person that makes him or her worthy of respect.
Tanaya sits alone on Columbia and Hastings watching the evening crowd: addicts, dealers, misplaced tourists, gentrifiers and agency workers scramble up and down the street. Some duck under cover to avoid the unforgiving raindrops. Some appear not to notice and peddle a few more packs of cigarettes before seeking shelter.
Sammy approaches in a motorized scooter, bursting with a mix of natural enthusiasm and a drug high. He’s eager to talk and take selfies but our instinct tells us he’s not the one we are searching for so we say goodbye and move on. We are offered a large stolen crystal for $15 dollars. The seller beams with pride as he tells street goers he has managed to steal the biggest crystal in the shop. He suggests it will ground us in yoga – perhaps suspecting that our daily rituals are far from the rituals performed on Hastings Street.
Makenna, a grade 12 THSS student and I move on. We offer Save on Meats food tokens to those who look like they could use a good meal and we wait for the right person to approach us so we can carry our conversation Beyond HELLO. I assure Makenna that when we meet the right person, we won’t feel nervous. We will know when it’s time.
Tanaya is alone, strong yet weak, as her defined arm muscles support her in her black wheelchair. With rods replacing a femur, her leg no longer supports her and a recent broken ankle has amplified her struggle. Her left side is extended making movement up and down Hastings even more difficult than it already is. Together, Makenna and I walk up to her and ask if she would like a token for Save on Meats. “Hell ya” she says with a smile that lets us know she is the one.
“Would you like to join us for dinner? We were just about to head there..”
“Even better! Of course I would. This is awesome. Would you be willing to push me?”
And there we are, on our way down Hastings finding light in Vancouver’s darkest neighbourhood. As I push Tanaya’s wheelchair, I lean forward so I can hear her over the sounds of screeching cars, trolly buses and drug transactions. Makenna follows and returns the smiles of those watching us. Some ask if she is old enough to be down here – perhaps protecting her, perhaps showing too much interest in her. Makenna smiles back with confidence calling me her teacher and assuring those around us she is only here to help.
The staff at Save On Meats welcome us as always and we make our way to a table at the back. We don’t have to ask Tanaya for her life story. She offers it freely, so happy to have made friends – thrilled to have some peace and security even if just for an hour.
“Can I have a milkshake if it’s not too much to ask?”
“Yes – please order anything you like.”
“Can I have a meal and waffles? I could take the waffles as dessert and eat them for my next meal”
“Yes – that’s a great idea. Why don’t you ask for your waffles to go after your dinner.”
Tanaya is overcome with gratitude. Her smile is sincere, her shoulders start to soften and she eases into her temporary escape where all that is expected of her is a conversation with new friends.
Tanaya has not always lived on the DTES. Born in Prince George, she is the oldest of 13. Her mother, a street worker, has escaped the sex trade of the city and moved to Vancouver Island. They are connected in spirit but lack the means to connect in person. Tanaya’s dad died by suicide. Her babysitter from childhood, Alisha (Leah) Germaine went missing from the Highway of Tears as one of BC’s many missing women.
By age 14 Tanaya was pregnant. Unable to keep her first baby, she longed for better days. By 17 she was working as a prostitute in Maple Ridge, BC but the small community did not reap profit the way Vancouver’s streets could. At first she found the nightlife exciting. Vancouver doesn’t sleep and Tanaya did not feel addicted to her lifestyle or drugs. Petite, blonde and athletic, Tanaya had the beauty and strength to escape this life when she was ready.
At 18, Tanaya was ready for more. She fell in love and began a family. She gave birth to two boys, now age 5 and 6. Unfortunately, their father wasn’t able to sway from trouble and went to jail for possession of a firearm. Tanaya managed to stay clean and support her children for the first three years. Life as a single mom caught up to Tanaya, and her addiction and lifestyle pulled her back to the streets. Her children, now in the care of the ministry, may not know how much they are loved. Her ams bear their names – one tattooed on each forearm. She smiles with pride and it is evident there is no one she loves more than her boys.
I ask Tanaya where she hopes to be in five years. She talks about getting clean and getting custody of her boys. She is worried her degenerative health may prevent this. Although she describes herself as an addict, she isn’t as far gone as many of the street. She budgets her funds and balances her addiction with scarcity of consumption. She spends an average of $100 per year on clothing, and $375 a month for rent at one of Vancouver’s worst shelters. Her room is near a back door where it’s easy to gain access. The scan card lock is easy to manipulate and her room is broken into continuously. She is equally scared of strangers as she is her boyfriend. Her boyfriend, diagnosed with multiple personality is her protector and her abuser. She never knows what to expect but doesn’t feel she can escape. His protection is worth more than the dignity it costs her.
Tanaya orders a spicy chicken burger with poutine. She relaxes and removes her outer layers. Her turquoise tank and beautiful smile light up her face. Her arms are ripped from manually propelling her wheel chair. The addiction has paid it’s price, and it’s hard to comprehend that she is still only 26 years old. Her name, given to her by her grandmother, means ‘giver of life’. Despite circumstance, Tanaya’s eyes still sparkle as she appreciates the little things in life. She exudes gratitude, speaks of her spiritual connection and is acutely aware of energy in the room.
Tanaya removes one of her heeled boots to let her broken ankle rest. She wants to get better but treatment doesn’t weave well with addiction or loneliness. Her reliance on fentanyl keeps her on the streets. She speaks of her hospital experiences. Rather than seeing the hospital as a place to get well, she feels as if she is not eligible for the same type of care as you or me. She is convinced the goal is to discharge her as fast as possible to make room for those more accepted by society.
I apologize for the judgment she faces and ask her if it bothers her that passing cars lock their doors in fear of her sheer existence. She shakes her head no and says “No – that’s not it. It’s the access to service that hurts. Taxis won’t stop for me. And if they do, they rummage through my purse without permission to make sure I have money. Hospitals don’t let me wait with others in emergency. As soon as I arrive I am put in isolation. It’s not just the people who stare out the window – it’s those that should be willing to help that don’t.”
I explain to Tanaya that I try to visit the DTES at least once a month. I ask if she would like to connect again. She agrees eagerly and exchanges contact information. With a new lightness, and a brown bag full of Belgium waffles, she asks if perhaps I can drive her home so she can escape her boyfriend for just one night. We talk about meeting again soon as we say goodbye. She pauses awkwardly and takes a risk:
“Can I ask you just one more thing? – If I decide to get the medical care I need, would you come visit me in the hospital? I hate knowing no one will visit.”
“Yes – of course. I would love to visit and bring you anything you may need. It’s the dignity you deserve.”