Tag Archives: downtown eastside

Two Years Later

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Two years ago today, I returned from My Homeless Christmas in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Canada.  A Christmas without money, without a home, with uncertainty, darkness and a lack of heat, all contributed towards new experiences which I tried to re-create for the readers of this blog.  If success depends on the total number of views reached over the past two years (23,000) or by the number of lives affected (quantity immeasurable), then this project was a success.  This post is for those who live in Vancouver, but if you follow the links which I give below, you will be able to follow along.

When I returned home from my experiences, I contacted all media outlets and received the first response by my University’s newspaper.  I was also asked to discuss some of my experiences to a group of children at the boys and girls club in Delta.  Next, a radio and TV station asked for an interview with me.  A week later, I was able to send my message across all existing media outlets available in our time: TV, radio, newspaper and the internet.  Last but not least, I helped to set up a couple of field trips in the Downtown Eastside for high school students, both of which were extremely effective.  I was very impressed at how much interest there was for this topic.  This also provided me with further proof that it is possible for one man to make changes in our current environment.

Eight months later, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) decided to take on a similar project.  Given that three different police officers took down my blog’s address on three separate occasions and the fact that their blog started eight months after mine – with the same web format and style I use for my blog – it must have influenced The Eastside Story’s creation.  Unfortunately, their main aim was to improve their self-image with regards to the public’s eye.  They decided to appoint a journalist, who goes by the name of Steve Addison, to document his experiences as a Beat Team police officer using taxpayer’s money (The Eastside Story).  The Beat team is a group of VPD foot-soldiers who walk around the Downtown Eastside and give care to the community.  They are well-known in that region and some of these officers essentially end up being social workers during their shift.

I’ve been asked how I felt about Steve’s blog and as I have alluded to above, I believe that this was a publicity stunt to try to improve the image of the department.  The Police Department’s image was recently tainted when Robert Dziekański, a Polish immigrant, murdered in 2007 and when 12 police officers stomped a man in the Downtown Eastside.  That stomping never reached the air or any tabloids along with the other violent and unjust Downtown Eastside stories which remain untold to this day.  You can check my blog for details.

In the same way, Robert’s story would not have aired if a bystander had not released the film footage to the public.  Even though airports are heavily equipped with video cameras and have constant footage of every square inch – at least I hope so since the 911 attacks – it took a local man’s videotape footage to contradict the officer’s original version of the story.  These negative images of the Police Department tainted the public’s mind.  Therefore, to override this negativity, their good deeds became a large spectacle for others to see.  However, their work had a positive impact for our community even if their original motive was different.

To change gears a bit, I’d like to restate Newton’s second law here: Force is equal to mass times acceleration.  In this context, writing positively about the Downtown Eastside creates a force that can actually start a movement.  Like a piece of ice breaking off a mountain and gathering speed as it moves down, it can create an avalanche.  Even though Newton’s equation was referring to physical objects only, I am hereby extending his theory to also apply to the movements of mental objects as well, such as thoughts and ideas.

As a matter of fact, why I decided to go homeless for Christmas was so that more energy can flow into that space and close the gap between the East and West, rich and poor, powerful and weak.  Our stereotypes disappear by opening our minds and communicating with those who we understand the least.  The reason why we understand them the least is two-fold:  One, most do not experience homelessness, just as the most do not experience being rich.  Second, our society shuns different opinions especially those coming from lower-income classes.

The purpose of this project was to give a voice to those who we neglect in our society.  The ones neglected often practice life differently than what society expects from an individual; and so these people are by definition, not normal.  The word normal represents the common viewpoint of a population, which is often branded through government-sponsored education, news, TV, movies and advertisement.  People are told what they like and what is acceptable or not, since these are just merely social constructs.  However, it is never normal people who shape society, create movements or are the most imaginative and free.  In fact, it is those who dare to step past the confines and borders, which we created for ourselves, who shape our universe.

As always, I have and will encourage all the readers to take a minute and re-evaluate our entire society from the ground up.  Then, evaluating one’s life with respect to one’s dreams and aspirations becomes the forefront of mankind’s existence.  It is through constructive thinking and not through the simple re-telling of stories that help build a society.  As the ancient Zoroastrian religion states, “good thoughts, good words and good deeds” are the most important principles of life.  Now, granted that we assume language as given, positive thinking sets into motion good words and then finally good action.  Therefore, the seeds of change are present in our minds. We also are able to influence one another.

WhSingle Room Occupancyen it comes to keeping in touch with some of my friends in the Downtown Eastside, it is often extremely difficult to keep a healthy relationship going.  For one, they live in horrid living conditions.  If you enter a Single-Room-Occupancy (SRO) offered in the Downtown Eastside, then you will know exactly what I am talking about.  The SRO, which the politician Jagrup Brar stayed in, was among one of the more expensive and cleaner spaces available.  The media rarely releases footage or pictures of these “livable” spaces some people have to call their home; for if they did, you would find them atrocious.

For those interested in how other parts of the world deal with homelessness, you can email me and I will gladly offer facts and current successful systems implemented in other parts of the world.  That is one thing that Steve Addison’s blog completely sidestepped and did not address.  Even though his point of view was empathic, it lacked practical and possible solutions to cut the existing problems there.  I do realize that this was not the purpose of his blog though.

I am working on starting a couple of new projects.  My recent commitment towards completing a second bachelor’s degree has changed my focus and energy in life.  In a few months’ time, I will be able to write more often about God, spirituality, science and other topics which I have promised to do in the past.  I look forward to hearing feedback and taking part in more discussions with all of you.  I wish all my readers the best in the upcoming New Year.

Happy New Year,

Nima Farzaneh

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Day 6 – December 28, 2010 – So this was my birthday

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So this was my birthday

When my friends left, I walked over to Kenneth’s alley.  Kenneth was patiently waiting there to meet my friends.  Unfortunately, I arrived alone.  When I told him that I was sorry and disappointed, he accepted it.  He knew that many will have a hard time accepting my new perception of the homeless.  Through my limited experience, I have seen both sides of the coin.

I told Kenneth that my brother was more open-minded and that he would come down to meet him.  Right away, Kenneth gave me his phone to dial him up.  So I did.  Within half an hour, my brother spent time with Kenneth and me.  I guess some people are too scared to meet a stranger in an alley.  In their mind, this was a perfect setup for a mugging.

I’ve been walking up and down Hastings Street in the middle of the night for a week now.  Not to mention the five nights I have spent sleeping alone on the side of the streets and alleys.  I’ve been walking through this “scary and dangerous” place called the Downtown Eastside.  First and foremost, I have met very kind men and women with big hearts.  And secondly, fear only exists within the mind.

You and I will perceive each situation differently and the way you perceive it will dictate how you feel.  Some may find a situation fearful while others may not.  Therefore, it is up to the person interpreting the situation to let in negative or positive feelings.  I learned this lesson on my first day.  When a car stopped next to me in the middle of the night, my heart started racing.  I thought I was going to get mugged, beaten up or even arrested.  However, in reality a Good Samaritan was delivering me catered food.

Day 6 – December 28, 2010 – Street Feet

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Street Feet – 8 AM

I set up camp across the street from H&M on Granville Street.   Before going to sleep, I took off my shoes.  My feet were very sore.  I have what they call “street feet.”  I have yet to take off my shoes because I didn’t want anybody taking them.  Today was the first day in five that I allowed my feet to breathe.  It felt great to shut my eyes and just drift away.  After a few minutes I was in a deep sleep.  I was so tired that the pain from my feet made absolutely no difference to me.

At around 8 AM, the Transit Police woke me up from my slumber.  Last time I encountered the Transit Police, I was given a $5 gift certificate to McDonald’s.  The Transit Police told me that I was not allowed to sleep here.  Next, the officers asked me for my ID.  I had none.  Sean told me last night that it is illegal to walk around without any ID.  The only thing I carried with myself was a U-pass, which is a university bus pass.  It had my name and my picture on it, so I gave it to them.

Yet again the transit police conducted themselves very politely.  I have a feeling that they either sympathize with the homeless or they know that the homeless have rich hearts as well, just like you and me.  One of the officers started to write my name in his notebook.  He looked down to ask me for my birth date.  “Well, my birthday is today.”  They looked at each other, smiled and said “Happy Birthday to you!”

I told them of my entire mission and why I decided to spend my Christmas break in the Downtown Eastside.  One of the officers then asked me if I was affiliated with any group.  No, I am not.  I am simply an internet blogger.  I am here to explore and put a face on homelessness and meet the people that are often talked about in a negative way in our society.

He took my picture along with my blog address.  The officer seemed interested in my mission and will hopefully end up reading this post.  It looks like I’ll have to take a couple of days off work to get my blog up and running.  There are many pages written so far in my notebook and there is more to come too!  Who would have thought that I’d meet such sweet people that are equipped with stories that will melt your hearts?  I certainly didn’t and I was guilty of that.

Day 5 – December 27, 2010 – Church Doors Open

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Church Doors Open

I’m sitting in the St. James Anglican church again.  The doors were open, so I entered.  I don’t know what it is about this place, but I feel very welcome each time I step through these doors.  I am going try the Buddhist temple next.

This time, however, the sermon drew only four people.  One of the men, who were sitting in the back row, looked distressed and was in tears.  I am not sure why he was crying, but I felt moved by his sadness.  I regret not going up to him, but then again, he may have wanted to be left alone.  Based on this man’s appearance, he could have been homeless.  He was probably here to connect to something he felt was missing in his life.  Many seek religious institutions to repent or to find that missing connection.  Either way, I felt helpless while wanting to help.

The man leading today’s sermon was Father John.  I had a chance to talk to him after.  He said he was actually a monk.  I said, “You must have a really tough job in this neighborhood”.  He replied with a smile and accepted the challenge.

He continued talking about Father Matthew.  There are four priests that run this church.  Father Matthew received special attention.  It was because he’s the only priest that knows every homeless or impoverished person by name around here.  He walks in the alleys and shakes hands with everybody in the Downtown Eastside.  He is famous for this.  I remember meeting him yesterday.  He saved my name in his phone.

I have a feeling that I’ll be back here sometime in the future.  This church is real.  The priest’s actions show that they are making effort in improving this place for the people who seek help.  But for now, it is time to move onto the next location.

Day 4 – December 26, 2010 – The Native Panhandler

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The Native Panhandler – 3pm

Walking around with a giant garbage bag in my hand was not comfortable at all.  I wasn’t bothered by how I was viewed by others, but my bag started to rip and every few minutes I had to stop and switch hands because my hand was getting tired.  Luckily, I found myself another shopping cart to simplify my journey a bit.  While being in the downtown eastside, I decided walk along the Granville Strip to purchase some pizza.

When I arrived, the sidewalks were filled with people carrying multiple shopping bags in each hand.  Now picture a smelly, impoverished homeless man pushing a shopping cart through the middle of the crowd.   That man was me and I was hungry too.

A few minutes before I reached my destination, my stomach began to growl.  I pulled out one of my Special K granola bars that were given to me earlier and started eating it while pushing my cart through the maze of people.  As I continued walking a panhandler started to point in my direction.  I looked behind me to see whether he was pointing at someone else or not.  When I looked back, he waved me over to where he was sitting on the pavement begging for change.

As I changed the direction of my shopping cart, I started to split the stream of the Boxing Day crowd with it.  When I pulled to the side, this Native panhandler asked me whether I was hungry.  I certainly was.  My stomach was empty and I was heading to grab some pizza.  He reached back for a brown paper bag and offered it to me.  “Here you can have my poutine.  I am not able to finish it.”

I was floored.  A panhandler who is begging for money is willing to give me his poutine because he knew I was hungry.  Wow.  That is the equivalent of a millionaire giving $800,000 to a stranger that was in need, without giving it any thought.  Talk about an earthquake shattering challenge to the stereotypes that are alive in the minds of many today.  The middle and higher classes of our society can learn some valuable lessons on how to live as a community through these examples.

I kindly rejected his offer.  I did not come to the Eastside to take advantage, trick or use anybody here.  I had money in my pocket, which was donated by some generous people and I was going to buy myself some food with it.  Once I reached the pizza joint, I ordered myself two slices of pizza, stretched out my hand to receive the change, only to have the cashier toss the change onto the table instead of dropping it into my hand.   This story was partly aired during my interview with CityTV.

Day 4 – December 26, 2010 – The Living Room

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The Living Room – 2pm

When I got out of the church, my shopping cart wasn’t there anymore.  It is something that I have grown accustomed to by now.  When you find a cart, you can take it, but don’t expect it to be there when you come back.  I left the church and continued my search for Mission Possible.   Unfortunately, it was closed.   So I decided to walk across the street to another community center called the Living Room.   This is a place where people with mental disabilities come to hang out, drink, eat and watch movies.  Everybody here is really friendly and warm.  I’ve only been greeted with smiles.

Out of all the organizations I have come into contact with so far, this place, the Oppenheimer Community Center, Carnegie Community Center, and the Anglican Church are all worthy of mentions.  I think volunteering for any of these places would be great for people who want to make a difference in the Downtown Eastside.  I am sure that there are other places as well.

The staff told me that I am not supposed to be here.  This organization was only for the mentally ill.  That is ironic because I do not really understand this distinction so far.  John who played piano for me a few days ago was here as well.

Who judges whether one suffers from mental illnesses or not?  A common misconception is that the mentally ill are dangerous.  Is there a correlation between criminals and mental illness?  Contrary to popular belief, the mentally ill actually pose a low risk to society.  The research states that “it is more likely to win the national lottery jackpot, than to die at the hand of a stranger with a mental illness.”

Day 4 – December 26, 2010 – Thoughts & Reflections

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Thoughts & Reflections

I’ve already smashed my old perception and understanding of homelessness through this experience.  Do you require your own experience to know what it’s like?  The media either has a biased spin on this entire issue or they have not met any of these people before.  That’s because none of these stories have been broadcast on TV.  Had they covered these stories with us in the past, then there wouldn’t be any surprising experiences left for me.  The homeless or impoverished population makes up a broad group of people that should never be generalized into a category.

Homeless stereotypes come in all shapes and forms.  I am going to address the issue of the “dishonest panhandlers.”  If I told the public that I needed money for food, but used that money to buy crack, heroin or cocaine instead, then I am essentially lying and hurting myself.  My punishment: Damage to my body and negative energy in my life.  For example, a bad trip could lead to arguments and repercussions in the future.  Some of the homeless get kicked in the head while sleeping out on the streets.  Either someone is trying to get even for something done in the past or it is merely an act of hatred against the homeless.

Now, should we as citizens not give them any money?  Let me go further and ask, “When has money been the solution to your problems?”  Sure, if you have a financial problem then money can fix it.  But how are non-financial problems solved?  Addictions are not financial problems.  It is not because of the lack of money that some choose to lead a life of drugs; but rather circumstances which many had no control over.  This then drew some into a life of escaping reality.

Unhappiness or anger cannot be cured with money either.  Unhappiness requires happiness as its cure and hate requires love as its cure.  The people who delude themselves into believing that money makes them happy or that “money can buy love,” are clearly on a road leading to nowhere.  If you believe that money is the solution to all the problems, then the richest men and women in this world should be the happiest, most loved and complete.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  The rich can also be addicted to drugs, commit suicide and be depressed all at the same time.

Some homeless take drugs to fill their psychological void and escape reality.  Psychological voids can be caused by sexual harassment, being neglected as a child, heartbreak, not being loved, societal pressures which bully different thinking or different looking people, our bleak history when it comes to the Native culture, mental illnesses, failures, post-traumatic stress and so on.  I am sure there are other reasons why some people get thrown into such a lifestyle.

Many of us have been lucky enough to have experienced peaceful, loving childhood experiences which did not require the withdrawal from society.  It is easy to judge someone’s life without knowing their entire story.  I think John the Firefighter and other stories thus far were prime examples of that.  Naturally, our perception is very different than what many of the Downtown Eastside has been through.  Therefore, we can never truly understand what it feels like to be sexually assaulted by a relative when we were children, unless if we’ve experienced it ourselves.  There is no way of knowing how we would react given the same circumstances.

When it comes to an addicted individual, I would like to quote Einstein.  He said that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  Even though drugs did not cure their problems in the past, these unfortunate people repeatedly attempt the same solution.  Make no mistake, many non-drug addicts in our society go through the same pattern as well.  We continually try forcing the same solution, even though we know it hasn’t been effective.  Getting high and avoiding reality may be a temporary cure, since it forces the mind off whatever one’s psychological void is, but again, that is not a solution.

Money does not provide immunity to these psychological voids either.  A rich person can have all of the same problems a poor man has.  Being born into a wealthy family, while dealing with a drug addiction, does not necessarily translate into homelessness.  The rich man is protected by his assets which prevent him from being tossed onto the streets.

I just fell asleep at Blenz for a bit.  The cashier woke me up saying that I am not allowed to sleep here.  It was cold last night, so I wasn’t able to get proper rest; this day may be longer than usual.  All businesses are open, so it is harder to find a place to sleep in an alley.  The backdoor in alleys can open without a moment’s notice.  That would be a rude awakening.

So I decided to head to the Granville Strip for a nap.  I’m going to be using my shopping cart to get there.  My shopping cart is parked outside of Blenz right now.  It is time to provide a bit of contrast to the people who “have to” buy themselves a new toy on boxing day.  Not everybody is as privileged as they are.  I think it’s about 7:30 AM.