“When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a high fence.”
It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and many of us are lucky enough to indulge in family dinners with an abundance of food. I am one of the lucky ones, and just returned home from our annual Thanksgiving dinner, with turkey and all the fixings. As always, there was more than enough food – a stark comparison to the way my day began.
This morning, I had the pleasure of taking grade 6 student, Mya, to the streets, to invite those in need to join us for breakfast. Every Sunday morning, the homeless community in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside line up in the cold, hoping to receive a free sandwich from regular volunteers. To guarantee a meal, they have to get there long before 10 AM, when the truck typically arrives.
Mya and I arrived at 9:45 AM and decided to approach the line and invite someone to join us for breakfast. I noticed the line was long, yet most in line were men. Where were the women? Near the middle of the line, one woman caught my attention. She smiled at Mya and me, and I wondered if she might be our breakfast guest.
As we walked closer, she asked us to be careful with our footing. Unbeknownst to us, the sidewalk was splattered in blood from a late night bar fight. The woman quickly recognized we were not from the neighbourhood and invited us over to learn more. She explained the bar fight from the night before, and also told us about a horrific accident where a woman was hit in an intersection and dragged for one block. She warned us the neighbourhood was not safe at night, and told us only to visit during the day. I nodded and offered, “I bet you have seen a little of everything down here.” She started to agree, and then paused to think about life before the streets. “Yes, it’s bad sometimes – but so was my life growing up – and I’m going to get out of this place. I will make it. I grew up in foster care, but I am going to make it one day as a social worker.” She spoke with confidence and conviction, and I have no doubt she will make it off the streets. She introduced herself as Ashley, and debated joining us for breakfast. She was happy to connect and share her story but she didn’t want to give up her prime spot in the food line. Thinking of others first, she suggested those behind her might be a better fit.
The two men standing next in line were actively listening to our conversation. One smiled contently, without saying a word. His eyes suggested he may accept an invite. The other man, with apparent mental health struggles, talked continually telling us his 56 year life story summed up in 3 minutes. Jamie, the talker, asked first if he could join us for breakfast. The quieter man shifted his gaze away. I asked if he would like to join us as well. He shrugged, smiled, and politely accepted. Together, the four of us headed to the Ovaltine Cafe.
As we entered the restaurant, Jamie left his backpack with us at doorway, and went to the washroom to wash his hands. The quieter man introduced himself as Duncan, and thanked us for the invitation. Mya and I explained Beyond HELLO, and why we had driven to the DTES to help those in need. Duncan was appreciative, and thought it was wonderful Mya wanted to help at such a young age. As a father of three girls, and a brother to three sisters, Duncan knew how to treat girls and women respectfully. He listened attentively as Mya explained her life as a French Immersion student and a multi-sport athlete.
Duncan politely asked if he could order a burger. Jamie gave a five minute monologue on why the burger was overpriced, choosing the $3 oatmeal for himself. I smiled and assured Jamie that ordering the burger was just fine.
As we waited for breakfast, we tried our best to speak with both men. It became really clear that Jamie had trouble pausing his speech long enough for Duncan to get a few words in. Despite this, we did learn a fair bit about both men.
Duncan was born in Scotland, and immigrated to Ontario with his parents when he was a young child. His family moved from Ontario to BC, and for most of his recent years, he has lived in Surrey, working as a roofer. He has 32 years of experience as a roofer, and doesn’t mind the hard work and changing weather. He spoke of two failed marriages. He has two daughters from his first marriage, and one from his second. He stays in touch with them via social media. He was proud to share that he worked hard and provided as a single dad. He reflected back on the day that he made the decision to leave his second wife, buy a trailer, and never return. He was able to secure full custody. I asked why he had to leave. He explained his ex wife struggled with heroin addiction and it wasn’t worth his happiness to stay any longer. These days, Duncan continues to work as a labourer on local projects. He had found affordable housing for $600 / month, but was evicted when he was short $100 and unable to meet the payments. He now chooses to stay at First United, a low barrier shelter along Hastings Street. He spoke highly of the staff at Insite, indicating he is a regular client at the safe injection site. There are so many more questions I wish I had been able to ask of Duncan, though I could also tell his introverted demeanour could only tolerate Jamie’s non stop talking for so long. After his burger, he politely thanked us, and excused himself back to the streets.
Jamie enthusiastically proclaimed his whole life was in his backpack. Sometimes he sleeps outside, and other times he seeks shelter, though he is convinced he was attacked and robbed during the night as he is missing cigarettes and has a mark on his face. He explained that cigarette packs are sold at a reduced rate on the DTES, and that you can tell they are from the black market as the packaging doesn’t include the Health Canada warning labels. Jamie describes himself as a journalist, and he was proud to share that a paper he wrote, entitled “Why Do Psychiatrists Always Think They are Right?” was published by Megaphone Magazine. Jamie’s passion is journalism. He writes for therapy, and describes his journey from jail back to journalism. He encouraged Mya and I to journal regularly. Jamie spoke openly about his mental health, having a crisis during his first year of college, and being institutionalized shortly after. He has spent decades in and out of mental health group homes. At 54, he now has a 68 year old girl friend living in a senior’s home. He also shared that years ago, he and a female from his mental health group had a baby together. Because of his mental health challenges, he could not provide the support a baby would need. He asked if he should be ashamed, or if he should try to reach out. Knowing that he still has significant mental health struggles and alcohol addiction, he talked it through, and thought it would be best if he didn’t try to connect. These days, Jamie is happy to have a part time job selling ‘Hope in Shadows’ calendars, a local initiative that promotes DTES artists and offers employment to those with barriers.
As Mya and I paid the bill, we reflected on our breakfast conversations and decided to make one more stop before heading home. We walked Hastings Street to the Maple Hotel, and phoned my long time friend Cindy, to see if she would like to join us. As we waited, the police approached to assure Mya’s safety. We let them know we were not lost, and that we were ok waiting for my friend.
Fortunately, Cindy was in her SRO housing, and decided to pop out for a quick hello. Looking healthier than ever, Cindy emerged in a mint green sweatshirt and black jacket. We walked together to Save On Meats so Mya could buy some meal tokens and give them away along Hastings. As we walked, I shared new photos with Cindy of her birth daughter, Paige, in Ontario, and we reminisced about times together. (Cindy offered her daughter up for adoption in 1986, as she was in an abusive relationship. In 2014, my students found Cindy’s daughter, Paige and flew her to Vancouver to meet her mom for the first time.)
With ten minutes left on our parking meter, we sat with Cindy as she ate a quick breakfast and then headed back to the streets. Cindy took the lead, finding friends who needed a meal the most, and Mya politely handed out the tokens to those struggling to find food in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood. As we reached Cindy’s shelter, we hugged, said goodbye, and wished each other a Happy Thanksgiving. I promised to return soon. Mya and I drove away, grateful for all that we have, and wishing we could do more to help those in need.