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It took me an hour to reach the front of the UGM bread line. I got myself a couple of pastries and some bread. Just like last time, I could take much more but I decided not to; it is my last night here. Once the bread line completed, I walked over to the Carnegie community center one last time. I took a quick survey on which shelter to stay at for the night. The consensus was that the emergency shelter – The Crosswalk – was the best one to stay at (which is closed now). I hope this place was free of bedbugs.
While I was waiting for the doors to open, a man started a conversation with me. He was going through some tough times in his life. What really struck me about this person was that he wasn’t homeless nor poor. In fact, he owned an apartment in downtown Vancouver. The reason he was staying here was because he was not getting along with his wife.
His wife was an alcoholic. So he was too scared to sleep in his own home because, her condition made her very unpredictable. She threatened to commit suicide on a few occasions. Most of their altercations resulted with the Vancouver Police Department arriving at the scene. This newlywed couple was in some serious turmoil. It was serious enough that her husband was sleeping at an emergency shelter and not sleeping in the comfort of his own home. Much to my surprise, it seems that the homeless shelters are not only used by the homeless after all.
As time went by, more people gathered near the entrance. The temperature was to dip below the freezing level by tonight – so many came here to seek refuge from this cold weather. Another man approached me and started a discussion about our judicial system. I wish I clung to his words more carefully, because he had many interesting things to say.
One thing he noted was that no police officers – or anybody for that matter – has the right to ask for your name. Legally, you have the right to withhold that information to ensure your privacy. Furthermore, nobody has the right to write your name down for you. Police officers are only allowed to ask you for your credentials if there was a real complaint made against you, otherwise routine questionings were simply illegal. I am not a legal expert, so I am just repeating what this man had told me.
When the doors opened, we walked in one by one. Inside the shelter there was a man holding a clipboard. He asked for our names and then scribbled it on paper. That man just walked right in without saying a single word. Now I could see what he meant. Revealing your name to the shelter is a privacy issue and according to that man and this organization had no right in collecting names. The man holding the clipboard did not even bother to ask for his name. It looks like they had this privacy debate before.
Once we checked in, everybody was given a sheet, pillow and a sandwich. Water was available at the front of the room. This shelter could sleep about 30 people. Just before the lights went out, I checked to see if there were any empty beds. There were about 10 vacant beds. I can rest assured knowing that I did not take the last bed on this cold winter night.
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Where to sleep tonight? – 2pm
I tried to visit Lawrence Brooks at his low-income housing unit in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. I pulled on the door handle; it was locked. So I rang the buzzer. “Hi, I am here to see Lawrence.” The receptionist did not welcome that idea, “we do not let strangers into the building.” The only way I could enter this building is if Lawrence was there with me. I am sure there are good reasons for having such tight security. It is clearly very different from stepping into neighborhoods most of us are used to.
With this failed mission, I turned my attention towards determining which shelter to sleep at tonight. Kenneth warned me of the bed bug epidemic that’s out here. He said that he slept at First United Church a couple of times and both times, he got bed bugs. Many of the homeless would rather sleep outdoors than staying at these unhygienic shelters. Also, the stench of feet, snoring, puking, coughing makes it really difficult to get a good night’s rest. At least you can find yourself a quiet odorless area to rest when you sleep outside.
I am leaning towards staying at the Salvation Army shelter, located across from the Detox center. Jay and I were planning on staying there on Christmas Eve, but if you recall, I couldn’t find my way back and ended up sleeping near the Cambie Bridge instead.
Who knows how everything will play itself out? My brother encouraged me to spend more time with First Nations living in this area. So far the only native person I have met was the man who offered me his poutine when I was hungry. That time I had money in my pocket to buy myself a slice of pizza. The story is different now. I only have 25 cents to my name. A few hours ago, a couple of pedestrians offered me money while I was sitting on the pavement, but I rejected both offers.
I have two apples and some candy canes left in my bag. That is not a dinner, so I will have to line up at the UGM bread line again for some food. The good thing about the bread line as opposed to having dinner at the UGM is that we are not required to sit and listen to a priest scare us of the idea of hell.
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Kenneth (left) and Louis (right)
A few months ago, Louis had an infected appendix which required immediate medical attention. At that time, he was staying at a low-income Hotel in the Downtown Eastside. He quickly rushed down the stairs to tell the manager that he needed an ambulance. That manager refused to call 911. Louis had no choice but to find the nearest payphone to make his call. When the ambulance arrived, they took him to the nearest hospital where he received a successful operation in time.
A week after the operation, while Kenneth and Louis were playing PlayStation at Louis’ place, the police stormed in and detained both Kenneth and Louis. The Police was charging Louis for threatening to stab a shop-owner with a knife. However, since the store-owner’s story did not add up, they were both released. Louis had an alibi and so it was impossible for him to have uttered those threats.
The legal system actually encourages Louis to plead guilty. Even though Louis was innocent, it would be to his advantage to plead guilty rather than pleading for his innocence. Once the defendant pleads guilty, he/she will do hours of community service, but in return he/she will receive housing, special needs, food stamps and other enticing offers made by the government.
If Louis was to plead for his innocence, these offers would be revoked immediately. Not only would he lose out on these bribes, but he would also have to stand trial in criminal court. Since he doesn’t have a steady income, he would depend on Pivot’s services. Pivot is an organization that offers legal services for low-income people across the province.
After being told Louis’ story, I told Kenneth that I’ll be staying at a shelter tonight. He told me not to worry about taking someone’s bed because that is how life works. I left Kenneth with my sleeping bag and thanked him for his advice throughout my stay here in the Eastside. It was very nice to meet someone who I could trust and depend upon so early in my journey. He was there for me since day one.
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Departing with “the Godfather”
My blue sleeping bag and cat feces by the fence.
I stopped by Kenneth’s alley only to see his spot covered with cat litter. Somebody decided to dump a crap load of feces at his doorstep. This may have been the result of a gang member’s dissatisfaction towards him. Kenneth interfered with a few drug trades taking place here. During one of the drug trades, Kenneth was given $5 to leave the vicinity. When he refused this offer, one of the gang-members pulled out a collapsible baton and started beating him for not complying.
His last beating was due to a completely different reason though. It was for playing his harmonica in the alley. They broke his collar-bone. A terminally ill gang member, who lives in one of the nearby apartments, didn’t want to hear Kenneth’s music. This is a big issue for Kenneth because he is very passionate about his music.
His friend Louis joined us. Kenneth referred to him as his brother. Louis and Kenneth were not related by blood, but Louis helped Kenneth discover music and find peace in his life. How? Simple. Louis gave Kenneth his first harmonica. The rest is history. The harmonica allowed Kenneth to dive into a world which he never knew existed, the world of music.
Armed with a new and creative way to pass the time, Kenneth felt more positive about life in general. Since then he has become explored his musical talents. He now plays the flute, saxophone and clarinet. However, with Louis by his side, our conversation started to shift towards Louis’ story.
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Pavement Thoughts – 11am
I am observing the world around me while sitting on the pavement. I can literally sit here for hours, as long as I take a few washroom breaks in between. Today, it is a very quiet day in downtown. The Christmas spirit died off. There are not very many shoppers and not many smiles. More than half of the homeless/impoverished people who walk by acknowledge me, while I cease to exist to the rest.
Nobody has offered me any money yet; I don’t want money anyway. I have no addiction problems to support. I’m content. I have everything I need. The amount of money required to survive these streets is surprisingly very little. It’s the addiction that creates a high demand for money. For the folks back home, it is the addiction to material objects – not drugs – that creates such a high demand for money.
A thought that I am now contemplating is how “green” homeless people really are. Many of the homeless are environmentally friendly. They don’t drive cars, they don’t consume oil or electricity and they produce less garbage. Think about how much power, oil or garbage you produce and compare yourself to someone who is homeless. There is surely a large discrepancy between you and them.
To add another element to our analysis, we can see that the homeless collect most of the city’s cans for recycling. So while they work to make a buck or two, they indirectly help to save the environment. After all, we may need the homeless to live in a cleaner and greener society. This analysis is often overlooked, instead we focus on negative stereotypes.
Another observable difference between them and us is that there are no TV shows or Movies to watch or iPhones to play with while being homeless. Movies, TV shows and the news follow scripts from start to finish. In comparison, when two people are conversing, their dialogue are not read off a board or memorized in advance. Those people are having a human experience, but in the other cases mentioned above, it is a human having a virtual experience. I consider someone memorizing speeches no different from a robot or a machine taking instructions. These examples may show that the homeless are closer to reality than those who live in the “virtually insane” world which we have created for ourselves.
The technological advancements and gadgets may numb our brains to allow us to enter a world for 0′s and 1′s, as we have in computer language. But if we want to advance as a society, we need to be human first. We can enter a golden age if there is a great awakening within the auto-pilot driven human machines walking along downtown – I included – but it requires some effort to snap out of this state of mind. Change can only come from within and I believe that it is time to enter it now.
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The Last Day
It will be -4°C tonight. I will stay at a shelter because it is too cold for me to survive on these streets. Sleeping in a shelter was one of the conditions I set out for myself. I want to know what kind of people stay here and document my experiences. If no shelters are available, I will stay awake at Blenz until the day breaks. Then once the earth is warm enough, I will find a place to rest.
The pain from my feet, the unhealthy diet and not showering over the past six days, made me realize how comfortable my other life was. I told myself that I’ll stay here for a week and so I will. Unlike Misha Kleider’s “Streets of Plenty” documentary, I will actually follow through with what I have set out for myself. Misha ambitiously claimed that he will live out on the streets for 30 days, he only lasted for 25. Once he started using drugs, it didn’t take him much longer to abort his mission. Looking back at his documentary, it was grossly stereotypical. His point of view on the situation was not necessarily wrong, but it wasn’t accurate compared to the experiences I had. The fact that he walked around with a camera may have changed how people reacted towards him.
I am sure that a lot of his experiences were not documented on film either. Most people here do not like to be videotaped. Many of my characters refused to have their real name or photo posted on my blog. And video is more personal and intrusive than one’s name or photo. On many occasions in the documentary, Misha was clearly not alone. A cameraman stood by his side and filmed his actions. However, my experiences have been mostly in solitude. The exception was on my birthday. On that day, my brother and my friends visited me for a couple of hours. Most importantly though, there was no need to take drugs to “experience the homeless culture.” Drugs are a by-product that some of these unfortunate people suffer through.
Contrary to most popular beliefs, the homelessness issue is not necessarily about the lack of food or the lack of shelter available. Actually, I there are many shelters to choose from. However, bed bugs is a pest in most of these shelters. It seems like the number shelters is there, but the quality is lacking. Without analyzing this much further, I will wait until my experience tonight.
Some of the homeless feel that the affordable housing promises are not being fulfilled by our government. According to Gilles, “half a billion dollars was spent on a roof” at BC place, while there is a three to five-year back log on affordable homes. Gilles said that he lives on these streets until he is next in line for a home.
I think I am going to go take a nap on the Granville Strip again. Once I am well rested, I will do my usual walk down to the Eastside. The only objectives today are to meet up with Lawrence, Kenneth, sleep at a shelter and then head back to the other life which I left.
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Midnight Blenz Debate
Last night at Blenz, five of us were having a debate about homelessness. Our conversation got so intense that a couple of students put down their books and joined our discussion. It is great to see complete strangers coming together and exchanging ideas on how to make Vancouver a better place to live. In my opinion, I think we should set common goals and start learning from each other.
I learned big lessons in the past six days. And I am sorry for being so ignorant in the past. The homeless deserve more respect than they get. It is my duty as a Vancouver citizen to do my part. I hope that you are willing to do yours as well.
After our debate I tried to sleep in the alley, but I had a hard time falling asleep. It was too cold. the temperature dropped below zero. Shivering cold, I packed up my stuff and head back to Blenz. Even though, we’ve had a relatively mild winter, I still need a better sleeping bag and more clothes to survive in this weather. I guess most people stay at shelters under these conditions.
Tomorrow will be my last night in the Downtown Eastside. Earlier, I mentioned that I was debating whether to sleep in “crack alley” for my last night. After giving it more thought, I do not think that sleeping there would do anything at all. Even homeless people do not sleep there. Instead of doing that, I will be sticking to my original plan – which was sleeping in a shelter. If I had to take the last bed, I will cancel my mission and go home a day earlier than planned.