In 2020, COVID-19 has killed 189 people in British Columbia. We are in this together, and we are all making a difference to flatten the curve. We have changed our behaviour with the collective hope that our efforts will limit the spread of this virus, and ultimately save lives. We wear masks, we wash our hands, we practice social distancing, we have redefined the way we work and play and we have limited our travel. We do this because we care about our families, our communities, our country, and our world.
Meanwhile, a second crisis is sweeping our streets and killing British Columbians. In the words of Dr. Bonnie Henry, “Not everyone is weathering the storm well.” In June alone, 175 people died from drug overdoses. Why doesn’t this crisis get our attention? Because we choose to look the other way. If we do not use drugs, we are not at risk of overdose, therefore it is easy to see this crisis as someone else’s problem. To see this as our problem, we would need to change our lens. We would need to see this as a societal problem rather than one of choice. We would need to acknowledge that this is happening in our community and that the lives lost are those of our brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues, or neighbors. These are Canadians, living in pain, and turning to drugs for an escape from their demons or harsh realities.
A disproportionate number (40%) of homeless youth grew up spending time in our foster care system. Indigenous People account for 2.2% of Vancouver’s population yet 39% of people living on Vancouver’s streets are Indigenous. These numbers show the impact of generational trauma. As a society, we need to make a collective effort and share the responsibility of our broken systems. We need to stop blaming the homeless and addicted for their circumstances, as their personal stories make it abundantly clear that their situations are not just a product of poor choices. A community should not only be measured for its beauty and success – a community must also take responsibility for those it pushes away – those who live on the fringe of society and struggle for acceptance and belonging. As Dr. Bonnie Henry eloquently shared in her July 16th briefing, “This is a tragedy for all of us. This ongoing crisis reminds us that we need to put as much effort of kindness and compassion into caring for people who use drugs as we have been successful in doing, responding to the COVID-19 crisis.”
Each month, I head to Hastings Street to take someone for lunch in an effort to better understand their story. The COVID crisis has limited my efforts and I have missed a few months of connection. Typically, to go Beyond HELLO, we invite someone from the streets to join us and sit down for a meal at Save-on-Meats diner. Today, we adapted Beyond HELLO, with extra safety measures in place, and kept our conversations outdoors.
Thomas Haney grad, Savannah Hutton joined me as we handed out candy bags on Hastings Street. This small gesture was a gentle segway into conversation with Vancouver’s forgotten. The streets seemed different today. We did not cross paths with others handing out meals like we often do. Service agencies were closed or operating at a limited capacity, tourists were visibisbly missing from the Downtown core, and a noticeable heaviness lingered through the neighbourhood. The streets were somber. The increased toxicity in the drugs seemed apparent as many lay slouched along the sidewalk almost lifeless.
Those who accepted our candy had lots to say. Some spoke of family while others spoke of happier memories including college days or a trip to San Francisco. As we passed one man lying on the sidewalk he shouted out “Hey – just so you know, my dad is a supreme court judge in Saskatchewan.” The comment hung in the air as he looked up at us hoping to be seen, even if it was only for a moment.
As we offered candy to a woman named Pat, she lectured us about the sugar content and asked for money to buy real food. We explained we did not have cash to hand out. She asked if we could take her to a convenience store for some groceries. This seemed like a fair compromise as we were not able to sit down for lunch as we usually would. Pat eagerly gathered three bags of groceries: two boxes of cereal, milk, yogurt, pudding, chocolate milk, and a cold drink. As we paid for her groceries she spoke briefly of her pain and hard days, indicating Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside had been home for a long time. When I asked if she lived in a local shelter, she hesitantly said yes, but quickly informed us the conditions were less ideal than we would imagine. I assured her I had seen first hand what she was describing and understood why she chose to spend time outdoors. She wanted us to know that there once was a day where she had been thought of as beautiful. We let her know we could still see her beauty, though we understood her message. While a day once existed where she was noticed, she now crouches on the sidewalk invisible to most.
While I do not expect everyone to find comfort on Hastings Street, I do believe we can each reach out to see the invisible in our own lives. As I have learned through Dr. Gabor Mate’s work, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety – the opposite of addiction is connection. Please take a moment to think of your family, your friends, your co-workers and your neighbours. Think of those who may otherwise be forgotten and take simple steps to let people know they matter. Every one of us wants to be seen, and every one of us has a story worth hearing. Go Beyond HELLO, connect with compassion and together, let’s rekindle the human spirit one conversation at a time.
“The supreme goal for humanity is not equality, but connection. People can be equal but still be isolated, not feeling the bond that ties them together. When people are connected, they feel woven into each other. You are part of me; I am part of you. Love is what makes us one.” Melinda Gates