A few months ago I spoke online to a good natured group of women, who were gathering to discuss homelessness in Vancouver, after reading my book, Beyond HELLO. It was an honour to facilitate conversation, challenge common stereotypes and attempt to shift perception of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. One woman, with the best of intentions, spoke of her work handing out food on Vancouver’s streets. As she described her experience, she encouraged others to do so too by remarking “Some of them are really quite human!” Months later, this comment still haunts me. “Some of them are really quite human…” How is it possible that we have created a society where we see some people as less human than others? Yes – we have a society that allows for some to achieve financial success while others struggle, but being human is not measured by bank account balances. To be human is to live, to breathe, and to experience life. Rich or poor, we are all equally human, and we all need the same things: food, shelter, and connection.
While 2020 has been a hard year for all, our homeless community has really suffered as many agencies that support their wellbeing are not open for face to face contact. Coffee shops have closed down, drop-in centres have shut their doors, and help is less available despite rising need and increasingly toxic street drugs. In 2020 alone, BC has lost over 1300 citizens to Fentanyl related deaths (more deaths than COVID-19).
This morning, a Maple Ridge graduate, Sophia, joined me in an effort to go Beyond Hello and help those in need on Vancouver’s streets. Both of us were feeling down after a series of setbacks from 2020 that impacted our lives. We knew that some time helping others would bring our own worries back into perspective. Despite the weather, we were eager to help. The rainfall warning and windchill made Hastings street even more frantic than usual, as Vancouver’s most marginalized citizens sought shelter under cardboard boxes, tarps or broken umbrellas.
We began by handing out care packages consisting of socks, trail mix and beautiful toques handmade by Laity View grade 6/7 students. After handing out a few packages, we decided to walk over to the DTES Street Market – where residents of the neighbourhood sell possessions found in dumpsters in an effort to survive. Word spread fast we had free items and soon we had a crowd politely asking to receive toques in their favourite colours. The wind picked up and umbrellas were flipping on their spokes. The sideways rain left us chilled to the bone. One man walked passed us in his sandals, his feet crimson red from the winter weather. Sophia and I asked a small group near us if we could take them to Tim Hortons for lunch. It only took seconds for them to eagerly agree. Vicky, Tamara and Paul, who were friends with one another led the way. A quieter man named Tony who had overheard our offer followed in silence.
As we entered Tim Hortons we invited each of our guests to order lunch. Tony stood to the side, not sure if we had included him in our offer. When we gestured for him to step to the counter to order he smiled with appreciation and ordered a breakfast wrap and a chicken sandwich. It was clear he had not eaten in a while. As we waited for his lunch he spoke of his journey from Kelowna and unexpected twists that led him to Vancouver’s streets. He has not been here long. He hopes he is only passing through. There is something different about those new to the streets that is easy to sense. Perhaps it’s simply that they still have hope.
The Tim Hortons employee called my name, handing me two brown bags full of soup, sandwiches and donuts as ordered by Vicky, Tamara and Paul. Paul joined me at the counter and helped distribute the items as ordered. Our three guests found a table near the window and began to eat their lunch. Sophia and I said goodbye. They stopped, craving much more than a meal, and asked if we would stay. We gladly accepted the invitation and continued our conversation.
For the next 15 minutes, the three spoke of their lives. Paul spoke honestly about a life of family breakdown, his mother’s death, and his time in jail. He spoke with pride as he explained he was able to survive without relying on the system for welfare. He winced in pain as he tried to open his tea. He mentioned his pain came from a broken thumb. Sophia taught him how to build a splint using the plastic Tim Horton’s spoon. He thanked her for her kindness.
Vicky and Tamara spoke of life on the streets, both sharing stories of being robbed. For Tamara, this meant she was unable to purchase a Christmas present for her four year old daughter. She is grateful to the Christmas Bureau who stepped in to help. Vicky was robbed on Christmas Eve as she put her purse down to order a slice of pizza. Embarrassed, she explained she felt self conscious smiling as her dentures were inside the stollen purse. Vicky beamed with pride as she spoke of her three children in Nanaimo. She used the free Wi-Fi signal to find photos on social media of her two daughters and son. Despite limited visits, Vicky is a proud mom.
Sophia and I had decided not to order lunch so we stood near the table as we engaged in conversation. It was nice to see the three enjoy the simple comfort of a warm meal and a few minutes of shelter. Our conversation was interrupted as an employee yelled over to us – “Hey – only two people at a table – some of you have to go.” Their eyes lowered as this was not the first time they have been asked to leave a public place. As Sophia and I were not eating, it made more sense for us to step away. I turned to the employee and asked why they had to leave. Her tone shifted and she said “NO – not you, you are fine. They have to go.” Despite the fact that they were paying customers, at a table, mid way through a meal, they were the problem. Sophia and I, who were not even at a table, and purchased nothing more than a single cup of tea, were ‘not a problem’. You see, in the eyes of this employee, they were a little less human.
As we made our way outside, I apologized for the treatment they received. (I was rather furious – I’ll admit). Paul calmed me down, saying he can’t let it bother him. He’s treated this way everywhere he goes. Tamara, thanked us and explained she had to leave – as she needed a bathroom and Tim Horton’s didn’t have one she was allowed to use. Vicky and Paul stayed with us for a few more moments, thanking us repeatedly for our simple act of kindness. They asked us to connect again if we are Downtown, and told us that today’s lunch not only gave them an escape from the rain, it reminded them that there are good people in the world.
Vicky and Paul’s gratitude and appreciation was all we needed to remember what is right with this world. We all need the same simple things: food, shelter and connections to one another. After all, we are all equally human.
Thank you as well to Andrea Humer for sewing masks and donating funds to pay for Beyond HELLO meals, and to Kirsten Bailey for making toques with students.