As human beings, we are wired to connect. Every one of us has an innate desire to belong, to be accepted and to be loved. With COVID-19 restrictions limiting our ability to connect face to face, it is more important than ever to get creative and find ways to say ‘I see you’. For most of us, this means turning to online platforms to chat with friends, or arranging drive by events such as car parades to wish friends or family a happy birthday. While we all miss the warm embrace of a friendly hug, we have found solutions and ways to stay connected.
The ability to pivot does not come as easily for those living on the streets. Our most vulnerable citizens have been pushed further into the shadows. Unlike most, they do not have technology at their fingertips. They no longer have access to walk in services, and many fast food restaurants no longer offer a temporary space to warm up or use restrooms. The people on the streets are living in isolation, with a reduction of services and an increased need for emotional supports. Just like you and I, they want to connect, and they want to belong.
On Saturday, grade 7 students Mya and Sophia joined me in an effort to help those in need on Maple Ridge streets. Students at Laity View Elementary hand knit toques and filled ziplock bags with some basic essentials and snacks. Mya, Sophia and I drove through our community searching for people who might be in need of care packages or a warm hot chocolate. We picked up grilled cheese sandwiches from Big Feast so that we could also offer a warm meal. What warmed my heart was the ripple effect the girls created. When we offered hot chocolate to a man standing alone near Kanaka, the next three cars rolled down their windows and offered spare change. When the girls provided lunch to two men near Selkirk Plaza, a dad who had just walked by holding his young son’s hand turned around and walked back with his child to provide a handout. These simple acts of kindness provide more than food or clothing. They remind people on the streets that they are worthy and that they deserve to be seen.
Unlike Maple Ridge, it does not take long to find people in need on Hastings Street. The sidewalks are crowded with those who have lost hope. Many have turned to addiction as an escape from their reality. Beth, a grade 12 student at THSS put together care packages for the men and women on the streets. Beth’s mom, Cheryl – principal at Pitt Meadows Secondary joined us for an afternoon of giving.
In a matter of minutes, we were able to distribute care packages to dozens of people in need – all who gratefully accepted and thanked us for thinking of them. We visited local shelters and delivered a bouquet of flowers to my good friend Cindy who is not well. While I try to take a homeless person to lunch each month, this is no longer an option as all restaurants along Hastings have shut down. A McDonalds takeout window and Tim Hortons counter are all that exist to serve this community. Neither restaurant allows customers to use their restroom. What comes easy in one community is a scarcity in the next.
An Aboriginal woman named DJ took us under her wing and showed us the way to one of the only public bathrooms. As we followed her to the second floor of Tinseltown, she spoke of the Vancouver Missing Woman’s March, the loss of her daughter and her work advocating for women in the Downtown Eastside community.
Back on the streets, we headed to Tim Hortons with the intention of buying a meal for someone in need. A woman named Tammy approached and asked if we could buy her lunch. We agreed and invited her inside. She politely refused and asked if she could wait outside, noting that the employees are consistently disparaging to her and she did not want to be mistreated. Experiencing this first hand on my last visit, we agreed and lined up for her order. With a Farmer’s Wrap, Chocolate donut and Double Double in hand, she shared her story moving to Vancouver from Victoria seeking refuge in a local shelter. Years past she lived a different life, married with two daughters and two grandchildren. She worked at a waitress for 40 years and loved connecting with others. When her husband left her unexpectedly, her world crumbled. She now lives on Vancouver’s streets and connects with strangers as they pass her by.
Billy, originally from Newfoundland approached and asked if we might consider buying his lunch as well. He opted for a grilled cheese with a dozen donuts to share with friends on the street. He spends most his time opening the door for customers as 7-11 and asking for change. As he explained, he would rather beg than steal.
Bria (pictured on the right) moved here from Quebec. Pregnant at 17, she describes herself as a child having a child. She lost custody of her children and now searches for acceptance in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood. She spoke French with Cheryl and gratefully accepted a 20 pack of Chicken McNuggets, fries, coke and two apple pies. Her eyes sparkled as she talked about the beauty of people helping people.
Even in a world pandemic, we can all take steps to see one another and lend a helping hand. The strength of a community should not be measured by the success of some, but rather the wellbeing of all. In these difficult days, please take time to see those pushed to the outskirts of society. We are no greater than those lost in our shadows. We all belong.