It’s that time of year when leaves fall, rain cools the city and most find comfort curled up indoors with a good book or hot latte. Sunday morning looks a little different for Vancouver’s homeless as they line the street in anticipation of their next meal. Every Sunday at 10 AM, the same truck arrives, ready to feed sandwiches to Vancouver’s poor. Typically, I head to the Downtown Eastside in the afternoon, so I was surprised to see a line of 50 or so people gathering along Hastings at 9:30 AM. People stood patiently like they were waiting for a bus, but there was no bus stop, nor was their food. A passerby let me know the line up starts early every Sunday as many wait in anticipation hoping the same compassionate citizens from the week before, will once again arrive to offer the first meal of the week.
Sophia and Piper, two grade 12 students from MRSS joined me this morning with the intent of going Beyond Hello. Our plan was to invite one person to breakfast in exchange for conversation and connection. As we walked down East Hastings Street, we remarked that the city seemed to be in worse shape than our last visit. Vancouver’s homeless count has once again increased in 2019, with over 2000 people seeking shelter beds or sleeping in alleyways. We decided to walk towards the growing line, with the idea of asking someone to join us for breakfast at a local diner.
We looked out of place in the neighbourhood, with dry, clean clothing and my Starbucks in hand. As we scanned for a breakfast guest, it was apparent many were looking at us and wondering why we were there. An elderly Aboriginal man on a bench outside Carnegie Hall caught my eye. He sat peacefully, watching the line develop. Something about him reminded me of my first homeless friend, Sandra, who often sat at the same location. We smiled and walked past.
We approached the end of the line, and stepped towards two men who looked receptive to conversation. I asked if they were indeed waiting for breakfast. They confirmed that the sandwiches arrive at 10 AM. One man was a regular to the line, and one man shared that it was his first time having to line up for a meal. We invited both men to breakfast. One politely declined, and the other accepted eagerly. “Sure! I’d love to sit in a restaurant. Maybe we can chat and share our stories.” Yes. Exactly what we were hoping for. Ali introduced himself and we asked him to choose a diner. Knowing Save on Meats was not open until 10 AM, we decided to head to the Ovaltine Cafe, another nostalgic diner in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. As we began our walk, I glanced back at the park bench, still curious about the elderly man watching the crowd. I caught his eye again. He smiled. I couldn’t walk on without reaching out, so I popped over and asked if he would like to join the group of us for breakfast. Without hesitation, he said he would love to, and he joined the four of us in our walk towards the Ovaltine Cafe. He shook hands with Ali, Piper, Sophia and me, introducing himself as Lesley.
We engaged in friendly conversation, all eager to get to know one another. Just as we approached the restaurant, a slightly intoxicated woman with a tiny frame, and one broken arm, bounced towards us with her energetic spirit. “Hi! Who are you? Where are you going?” I explained the five of us were headed to breakfast together. With slight disappointment her voice softened. “Oh.” Again, I couldn’t resist. “Would you like to join us?” “Yes!”, she eagerly replied. I introduced her to Lesley and Ali. She smiled and said she already knew Lesley, but it was nice to meet Ali, the girls and me. I asked her for her name. “Yesterday. My name is Yesterday.”
Yesterday led the way into the restaurant, selecting two side by side booths – one for four and one for two. Yesterday patted the bench asking me to sit beside her. The two men sat across the table from us, and the two girls sat across the tiny aisle in a booth for two.
Within minutes, we all began to open up, sharing our personal stories. I spoke of my work as a school principal and our efforts in the DTES community with Beyond Hello. Piper and Sophia spoke of their grade 12 year and their plans for graduation and beyond. Ali mentioned he was from Iran and had come to Canada at age 10. Lesley was from Burns Lake, in Northern BC and Yesterday was from Campbell River. Her grandfather had helped create the city of Campbell River by chopping down the bush, and clearing the land for early development.
I asked Yesterday if she had any children. Sensing right away that it was a raw subject for her, she smiled and said, “Yes, enough to have my own football team.” She smiled, but I knew right away, the pain was close to the surface. She asked to speak about something else. I asked if she was named Yesterday at birth, or if it was a nickname. She continued. “I was abandoned at birth. My mother left me as a newborn baby. My brothers found me, not knowing how long I had been alone. My real name is Amy Faith, but my brothers decided to call me Yesterday. When they found me alone in the bush they wondered ‘maybe she was born yesterday’. The name stuck. I have always been called Yesterday.” I thanked her for sharing while solemnly wondering what life would be like to be discarded at birth and then named after the traumatic incident. Despite her sadness, Yesterday made it clear, her spirit was one not to be forgotten.
Yesterday loved to talk. It was hard for others to get a word in, as she would often start sharing another story in the midst of other conversations. She shouted out to the waitress, seeking a steady flow of beer to accompany her porkchop breakfast. Like many of my guests, she cautiously ate half, and took half to go so she would not have to worry about her next meal. Ali spoke of his two girls and his wife, and their home near the PNE. He spoke of a life that didn’t match his circumstances. We didn’t dig deeper. The story would come.
I remarked that sometimes it takes me a while to find someone to take to lunch, and I was pleasantly surprised we found three people so quickly on a Sunday morning. Yesterday laughed at this silly recognition – “Of course it’s easy, you’ve found alcoholics. We need to eat in the morning.” The men smiled and shook their heads. I spoke about the drugs and alcohol often being a mask for pain. Yesterday agreed immediately. “Yes, sometimes I am in so much pain I need to drink. Once I do, the pain starts to go away so I can feel numb.” Lesley, the introvert at the table, spoke seldomly but when he did, his words were profound. He jumped in, “Yes – that’s it exactly. My life is pain, and when I open the bottle, the pain goes away. Some days are ok, and some days are hard, but I drink to mask my pain.”
Yesterday began to speak of her life and her children. She is proud to be one of few women on the Downtown Eastside that has not been raped. She has been beaten, robbed and neglected, but she has not been raped – an incredible accomplishment in a neighbourhood where most have been assaulted. Yesterday tried living in the SRO shelters but she was mugged and her medication was stollen. She returned to life on these streets, and feels much safer living in a tent. Lesley lives at a local shelter and likes his small but bearable accommodations.
Ali found the courage to share what brought him to the streets and his first food line. “I came from Iran when I was ten years old. I travelled with a soccer team to Edmonton. When we arrived in Edmonton, I escaped. I had family in Canada and I knew where to go. Back home, my dad was jailed for one year to punish him for my escape. I married and had children in Canada. Recently, I noticed that every time I called Iran, my brother was not home. My parents hid his death for one year. When I learned of it, I could not handle the pain. I fell into a dark depression and began using alcohol and drugs. I never thought I would be here.”
Yesterday began to cry. “The government took my baby. She is the one they took, and she died. They told me she would be better without me and she is the only one dead. She swallowed the pills and died. But she left me my gangster grandson. He’s three, and he’s a triad.” I asked what a triad was, and she looked at me like I was crazy. “You know – triad – kind of gangster.” She spoke of his feisty spirit. I suggested maybe it came from her. She smiled and went on to explain her broken arm. She had fallen while drunk. Regardless, she was still a fighter and had accidentally hit a cop in the face while trying to hit a man fighting her boyfriend. The cop forgave her. She smiled knowing it was unlikely the cops would imprison a tiny 80 pound woman with one broken arm. She showed us her dragon bracelet symbolizing inner strength. There was no doubt her spirit was strong.
Yesterday took interest in Sophia and Piper, calling them her young ones. She held their hands and spoke to them about their future, asking them to stay true to their calling, to grow as strong women and to never accept less than they deserve. They agreed, assuring her they were on track. They spoke of their post secondary goals and Yesterday beamed, amazed that they had such bright futures. With shame she mentioned being 7 credits short of her high school diploma. She offered the following words of wisdom:
“We are born this way. We feel. We can connect. We push it away. We don’t want to know. But, we are all knowing. It’s our spirit.”
As breakfast came to an end, we took photos and hoped to stay in touch. What began as breakfast with strangers, had ended as breakfast with friends.