It’s easy to see what’s wrong with the Downtown Eastside (DTES). The news headlines capture it well: addiction, overdose, violence, despair. Cars speed down Hastings Street, and for six city blocks drivers and passengers gawk at the site of discarded citizens stumbling from alleys and lining the sidewalks openly injecting heroin.
It’s also easy to see what’s right with the neighbourhood. All it takes is a blend of compassion, curiosity and time to see the good on East Hastings. Unfortunately, stories of the oppressed modelling kindness and care rarely make headlines.
A few days ago, I received a thoughtful email from a recent graduate named Sophie. As part of her grade 12 writing academy, she was encouraged to read a book from a local author. Sophie scanned the shelf at Indigo and chose my book, Beyond Hello. A social justice advocate at heart, Sophie was moved by the stories from the streets and emailed me to inquire about future volunteer opportunities. Sophie plans to study journalism and appreciated the idea of giving voice to those who are often silenced. We agreed to meet in Fort Langley and head to Vancouver.
As we headed downtown in 37 degree heat, I explained that every visit is different. I never know what to expect but rely on intuition to guide me. We agreed that handing out something cold would be the best way to initiate conversation during Vancouver’s heatwave. We headed to No Frills on Hastings in hopes of finding some insulated freezer bags to fill with ice cream. With only cloth bags available, we settled on chilled yogurt drinks. We laughed at how yellow the store was (yellow signs, yellow carts, yellow boxes) and yet all the bananas were green. Accepting that chocolate is more fun anyway, we added some chocolate coated granola bars to our baskets.
Sophie acknowledged she was nervous but excited to help. I gave some tips such as looking at footwear to determine the dealers from those in need. We agreed to walk the streets handing out snacks until it felt right to invite someone to lunch. Sophie was a natural. Men and women smiled in appreciation accepting a cold drink. As always, I wondered if the right person would come along. I assured Sophie that somehow, they always do. With the afternoon sun beaming directly onto the cement sidewalks, we decided to find some shade and head to the neighbourhood Tim Horton’s. We passed a family on vacation at the edge of Chinatown. The husband and children posed while the wife positioned her cell phone to take a photo. A resident from the Downtown Eastside stepped forward and offered to take the picture so she could join in. In unison the husband said “yes please” while the wife took one look at the man, flinched and said “um – no thanks.” The judgment did not escape him. With a tinge of hurt he politely replied “I wasn’t going to steal your phone.”
As we approached Tim Horton’s, we discussed our plan of pausing outside. We didn’t need to wait. A man called out to us asking if we could buy him an ice cap. He explained that he had a terrible fight with his boyfriend the night before so he had spent the night sleeping on the street. He seemed stunned as we said yes – likely rejected by others. We returned moments later with an ice cap in hand. He didn’t seem up for conversation so we began to leave. A man pulling a wagon with a cat on a leash flashed us a magazine and asked if we would buy it for $2. I apologized for not having change and started to walk away.
“Wait,” he called out “we have an app. I can show you how to pay on your phone.” I began to pay attention. Megaphone is a monthly magazine that people living in poverty can buy for 75 cents and resell for $2. Their goal is to provide voice and economic opportunity to homeless and low income people. I had the app on my phone from a previous year when I had purchased the Hope in Shadows calendar from a street vendor. I explained to Sophie that the calendar showcases photos of the neighbourhood and also provides employment to local vendors.
Paul listened to us while balancing his cat on his neck. He mumbled about his stupid cat who always tries to escape. Despite his frustration he explained he was even more irritated by the number of people who tried to buy his cat from him for $10. Paul shared that Megaphone sells three items now: Megaphone magazine, Hope in Shadows calendar and a book, Voices of the Street. Paul beamed as he let us know he is a contributing author in the book. We agreed to buy a magazine, two calendar and two books.
Paul was born in Jamaica. He came to Canada in 1975 and in 1984 he enlisted with the Canadian Army serving in an engineering crew. Post service, he came to Vancouver to find work and instead found Hastings Street. Like many veterans, life after his years of service was difficult. He let us know that it was the kind words of a police officer that pointed him in a new direction. He decided that he needed to contribute and give back to the community that had taken care of him. He asked us why we were drawn to the neighbourhood.
Sophie and I explained why we had driven downtown. I mentioned the work of my students with Project HELLO and Beyond HELLO, and shared that the proceeds of my book are donated back to the neighbourhood. I explained how Sophie had reached out to me interested in helping.
Paul reached into his wagon and put together an additional bag full of magazines and another book. He thanked us for our work and insisted I take more copies to share with students. I hesitated and tried to refuse knowing this gift would cost Paul money. He shook his head and insisted “Not everything is about money. This is about community and people helping one another.”
Picking his cat up from the wagon he told us how much he loves her. We laughed as he had called the cat Satan just a few minutes before when she had tried to escape. He explained he named her MegaLove as she helps him sell for Megaphone. Paul mentioned that he has learned traditions from the Indigenous people living in the Downtown Eastside, and that he values gift giving as a way of appreciating and recognizing others. He explained that years ago he had travelled to Lillooet to help his friend ‘Momma Marcy’, a woman well known in the DTES. Marcy thanked him for his help by gifting him with a kitten. MegaLove has been with him ever since.
Suddenly Paul had an idea. He wanted to make a video of us sharing our story with him. With excitement he handed me his cat so he could set up his phone for filming. Paul found it hilarious that I don’t really like cats (sorry to cat lovers). I laughed and awkwardly held MegaLove. He let us know he would share the video with his boss letting her know about his customers and the work we were doing to help others. He spoke fondly of Megaphone as his employer, proud to be in his fifth year as a street vender.
Upon returning home, I smiled as I read Paul’s contribution in Voices of the Street. In his author profile, he speaks of the DTES, “There are just so many beautiful moments that it’s hard to not want to share them with the rest of the world.”
A journalist at heart, Paul has found the good in a neighbourhood judged by many.