It’s Family Day in BC – a day to take time away from work and spend an extra day with those we love most. For many, the word family sparks joy. Family represents love, safety, connection and a sense of home. For others, the word family brings back painful memories – a reminder of loss, grief or broken connections.
In my family, we have had a string of bad luck in the first six weeks of 2020. Heath challenges, injuries, and unexpected circumstances have increased the amount of stress in our lives. When my life begins to feel unrooted or overwhelming, I know where I need to go. Hastings Street, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, has a way of grounding me, shifting my perspective and reminding me what matters. The simple act of helping others feeds my soul and helps me appreciate how truly simple my problems are. The people of the DTES always inspire me with their courage, their resilience and their acceptance of others despite their tough circumstances.
This afternoon, my husband Shawn and I headed to Hastings Street. The neighbourhood was busier than normal, with hundreds of people buying and selling items or shooting drugs on the crowded sidewalks. Perhaps the dry weather brought more people out from the shelters or perhaps Vancouver’s rising housing costs have brought more people to the streets to fight for survival in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood. I have spent just over ten years volunteering on Hastings Street and I have never seen the street so plagued by poverty.
As Shawn and I walked the sidewalks, we handed out care packages made by the students from Laity View Elementary. A small crowd had gathered in the courtyard of Pigeon Square. While some folks tried to sell black market cigarettes to pedestrians, others gathered aimlessly seeking connection to the vibe of the street. As we handed out care packs, a tall man, likely 6’5 or 6’6 accepted our handouts and returned the favour with a joke: What do you call a nun in a wheelchair? Virgin Mobile. As we chuckled at his offside humour, he continued. Your momma’s so dumb she brought a spoon to the Superbowl! It was clear that humour protected Dennis from his dark reality. Without hesitation, he accepted our invitation for lunch and the jokes continued as we walked Your momma’s so dumb she thinks a travel log is a tree on vacation.
As we sat down at the Lost & Found Cafe, Dennis continued to entertain. He had us laughing at his string of well-rehearsed jokes. It was clear that Dennis spent most of his time trying to make others laugh. After ordering food, we tried to reach Dennis on a deeper level, curious about his story and life on the Downtown Eastside.
At age 67, Dennis has surpassed the average life expectancy on the streets. A second generation Vancouverite, he spent most of his life working as a longshoreman. I asked about the long days and nights working. He reminisced about the 60-minute lunch breaks and the pub nearby with 20 cent beers. He chuckled as he thought back to how inebriated his crew was by the afternoon. Their supervisors eventually caught on and adjusted the break to 30 minutes. Perhaps this was the beginning of Dennis’s struggle with addiction.
A lover of history, Dennis told story after story of a younger Vancouver. He recalls the day Wally’s Burgers opened with rollerskating servers, and couldn’t believe his friends attempted to skateboard down Royal Oak hill. He shared inside stories from construction workers building some of Vancouver’s highest skyscrapers.
I paused the conversation and made reference to our two teenage sons who had chosen to stay home sleeping in. I asked if he had any children. His gaze shifted and he flung his hand side to side while shaking his head no. Then, for a second, he let us in. He looked up and offered a quick reply – “Ya – I have a son back east in Toronto.” The jokes returned identifying Toronto as the centre of the universe and it was clear Dennis was not comfortable letting us in on his pain. Interestingly, I have noticed that when I am with students, people are more willing to open up and share their life circumstances, perhaps as a way of protecting the next generation from choosing a similar path.
Dennis spoke of his recent move from the Waldorf Hotel to a more reasonably priced shelter. The Waldorf charged $1800 / month yet his room was infested with cockroaches. While he liked the air conditioning, the cockroach infestation was reason enough to move. He glanced up at the bustling street market with hundreds of Vancouver’s homeless negotiating for stolen goods. He shook his head at the ridiculousness of reselling stolen items, while also commenting that he missed some great deals as he never seemed to have change the days great offered presented themselves. Dennis spoke of his longshoreman pension and CPP, bringing in an impressive income. Despite this, he struggles to make ends meet as he now lives in a shelter where rent is $875 / month including internet and utilities. Dennis did not open up about his addiction, so I can only speculate where his income may go.
Just as Dennis avoided questions about family, he shifted subjects quickly when I asked where he might be in five years. While he was eager to share the history of each building, he protected his personal history. He preferred to make us laugh and enjoy our company over lunch. Time and time again he made wisecracks about the restaurant ruining good food with fancy crap like kale or pesto. He shook his head wondering why anyone would want to ruin a good plate of bacon and eggs. I shared that my cooking skills are pretty poor. He laughed and offered another joke. Your momma’s cooking is so bad the flies came together and fixed the hole in your screen. As I laughed he responded in delight – You get it? Some people don’t understand that one.
As we finished breakfast, loneliness set in, and Dennis’s stories ramped up. It was clear he would always have just one more story to tell as long as he had someone who would listen. On a day when most of us are grateful to have family, Dennis masked his pain in humour filling the void of broken connections.