Tag Archives: homeless

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 7 – December 29, 2010 – Pavement Thoughts

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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.

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 5 – December 27, 2010 – Gilles – Part III

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Gilles – Part III – McDonald’s

Don preferred to rent out his apartments to international students because they were often naive and didn’t know Canadian laws or regulations.  He would accuse the students for not paying their rent, even though they had already paid their monthly share.  If they weren’t willing to pay rent twice a month, he would threaten them with eviction.

There are three reasons why this scheme worked without any hassle.  Young students tend to be more timid and passive; therefore they would not object to such an accusation.  Furthermore, these international students did not want any trouble.  They just wanted to finish their degree; so they were willing to pay double the rent for a few months, if they had to.  These students were fully aware of being swindled by their landlord.

Some of the students started to complain directly to Gilles.  Knowing about this scam and what kind of person Don was, Gilles voiced his opinion to Don. He demanded Don to pay back these students.  This was a regular occurrence with many complaints coming from the building.  Don’s greed and gambling addiction was fueled in part by these unfair practices.

One of these students rebelled when Don accused him for not paying rent.  This student decided to write about Don all along the sidewalk of the building.  Armed with chalk, he wrote about the type of person Don really was.  As a temporary fix, Gilles advised these students not to pay rent for the last month, so that they could break even with their payments.

Don frequently gambled away his tenant’s deposit money.  There was a time when he promised a student that he would pay him back his deposit money on the last day the student was here in Canada.  But as he was leaving for the airport, Don did not fulfill his promise and the student chose to catch his flight rather than getting back his deposit money.  Don would never heard of him again.

For a while, Don tried to turn Gilles into his money-making-machine.  Here is how his other scam played out; when a new tenant agreed to move in, Gilles would collect the first month’s rent and deposit.  When the tenant arrived to get the keys, Don would look at the tenant and say “I don’t know who you are; I have never seen you here before.”  These people would refer to Gilles, but Don would pretend that he didn’t even know him.

These tenants would then call Gilles to complain.  This aggravated Gilles because he did not want to be part of this scam.  Therefore, Gilles would spend a long time trying to get some of their money back from Don. Gilles was too smart for Don’s games.  As time went by, Don became increasingly annoyed of Gilles.  So it was time for Don to try to get rid of Gilles once and for all.

Gilles claimed that Don tried to evict him in the following way.  The next story is about a Saudi man named Mohammad who had to go back to Saudi Arabia for some business.  Mohammad left Gilles with his keys, so that Gilles could check up on his apartment and car.  One day Gilles checked up on Mohammad’s belongings.  A few hours after checking Mohammad’s room, Gilles was confronted by the Vancouver Police Department.  He was being charged with “Breaking & Entering” into Mohammad’s apartment.  “But he gave me his key!” said Gilles.  The police officers did not believe him and accused Gilles of stealing from Mohammad.

Gilles told the officers that he can call Mohammad in Saudi Arabia to immediately clear up this case.  The officers felt that they were being lied to.  Before Gilles called Mohammad, he told the officers that it was 3 AM in Saudi Arabia and that he was probably sleeping.  Therefore, “he may not pick up his phone,” said Gilles.  He called.  No answer.  Now the cops accused Gilles of lying as well.  A month passed and when Mohammad returned from his trip, he went straight to the police station to clear up this entire misunderstanding.

One day when Gilles came home, his key could not open his own door!  Don had changed the lock to his door.  To make matters even worse, all of Gilles furniture was taken from his apartment and redistributed to other apartments.  Gilles would never see his furniture again.

So without any of his belongings, he complained to the Police.  The Police responded with “do you have a receipt for your furniture?”   When he told the officers that his furniture was redistributed throughout the building, the officers stared at him in disbelief.  The Police told him that he was out of luck and that he would not get any of his possessions back.  In fact, as I sat there talking to him, seven months had passed since he’d been tossed out onto the streets by Don. He did get some of his personal belongings back five days ago, but he was not able to recover any of his furniture.

Gilles has been sleeping under the Cambie Street Bridge for seven months now.  He chooses that place because he gets harassed and pestered anywhere else he sleeps.  Even though he had neither money nor possessions left after being completely robbed by Don, he refused to stay at shelters, panhandle, borrow from his friends or family or even take advantage of charities offered here in Vancouver.

This man was not only robbed of his dignity but also of his pride, past and passion.  He accepted the situation he was in and he told me that he was going to work to rebuild everything he had before.  From all of the odd jobs he has done, he scrounged up enough dollars to buy himself a small laptop.  He has been looking for jobs but it is difficult to land a job while being homeless.

I asked to take a picture of him, but he refused.  I really wanted to take a picture of him to show you how devoted and amazing this person was.  After all of the mistreatment he endured here in Vancouver Canada, Gilles was wearing a Maple leaf cap, along with a t-shirt with “Vancouver” on it.  He was still proudly wearing these symbolic representations of our nation and our city.

It is my duty to try to find him a free lawyer, or at least prevent Don from cashing in from more unaware students.  There must be a law to prevent such irresponsible and inhumane practices from taking place.  Nobody deserves such a cold treatment.  The sad part is that I have left out more details, simple because there were too many to list.

Day 5 – December 27, 2010 – Gilles – Part II

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Gilles – Part II

I woke up on Granville Street.  So where was I in telling Gilles’ story?  Gilles was working for Don, laminating floors, fixing broken toilets and doing various other tasks.  It was a chore for Gilles to retrieve the money he was entitled to from his labor.  Sometimes he even asked Don two or three times for it and only through consistent pestering was he able to make Don reach into his pocket to give Gilles the money he earned.

Don went on a month-long trip to Mexico and entrusted Gilles to rent out vacant spots to new tenants.  Gilles succeeded in filling up all of the unoccupied rooms while Don was soaking up the sun.  Gilles collected a total of $21,800 in cash and waited for Don come back from his vacation so that he could be given his money.

When Gilles gave that money to Don, Don gave Gilles a 6-pack of beer for his efforts.  Yes, for Gilles’ honest work, he was given a total of $15 in return.  It goes without saying that Gilles was deeply insulted by this payment.  It would have been better had he not even given Gilles a single dime.

The next story involves one of Gilles’ roommates.  His roommate had to go to the hospital to get his leg amputated, so his roommate paid Don three months of rent in advance before his operation began.  While he was in a coma, Don entered this man’s room and started to pack up all of his belongings.  Gilles asked Don what he was doing in his room and Don said that he wanted to rent out this space to someone else.  “But he paid rent in advance Don? How can you kick him out like that?” said Gilles.  Don replied saying that he didn’t want him living here anymore.

Since his roommate had no way of defending himself, Gilles decided to stand up against this injustice unfolding right before his own eyes.  He grabbed Don and threw him out of his room.  While he did this, Gilles shoved a $20 bill into Don’s mouth and said “eat that money, you filthy pig.”  How does one tell a physically disabled person, who paid rent in advance, that his room was rented out to someone else and that he should find another place to live?

Every time Gilles would see Don, Don would be counting money.  He owned somewhere near 20-30 rooms in this apartment and suffered from a gambling addiction.  Every few days he would hear stories about how Don lost thousands of dollars at the casino the other night.  Don was making $20,000-$30,000 a month in rent from his apartments.  Even though he was losing a lot of money at the casino, it still wasn’t a significant amount for him.

By the end of this story you will be accustomed to the other schemes he used to make his money.  These stories do not get any better.  I’m going to head to McDonald’s to grab myself a cup of tea.  It’s chilly out here and I’d prefer a warmer place to finish writing the rest.

Day 5 – December 27, 2010 – The usual Blenz

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The usual Blenz

Waking up shivering is a scary experience.  Right now it is cold and early in the morning.  The temperature has dropped considerably the past two nights.  It was not bearable, so I quickly gathered all my stuff and left.  As I was walking up the streets, I was hoping to find a shopping cart to put my bag in.  But until then, my priority is to keep moving and to stay warm.  Part of my project was to stay at a shelter for one night.  However, the rule I have set out for myself was that I will not be taking the last bed from somebody in need.

There are a lot of shelters here in Vancouver.  Shelters are plenty and so is food.  These are the two things citizens worry most about, but I think both are abundant.  The quantity may be enough, but the same cannot be said about the quality of the shelters or the quality of food available to the poorer community.  I guess the saying holds that “beggars can’t be choosers.”

Sergei told me that you can potentially eat like a King on these streets if you have the ability to build good relationships with the store owners or cooks.  You can show up to their restaurant at specific hours and they will provide you with their gourmet leftovers which you can eat.  All of that certainly depends on how well you can interact with others.  If you have a rude or mean-spirited personality, then you are out of luck.

I’m finally starting to reach my normal body temperature again.  I was willing to walk ten blocks to get to the 24-hour McDonald’s on Granville Street.  The Blenz that I am currently at was much closer than the McDonald’s, so I decided to come here instead.  You will often see homeless people warming up at these 24-hour locations during cold winter days.  If you spot one, please buy them a hot cup of tea.

Some of the homeless have been living on the streets for many years.  Kenneth told me that “a week is just a taste.”   And unfortunately for many here, this is life.  That is certainly true.  I will never get the true and real sense of homelessness, but with my experience now, I will know more than the average person does.  I certainly have a new appreciation of what I have and what they go through.  And with this blog, my message will be heard by those who choose to listen.

Nobody looks forward to being tossed onto the streets and alleys of Vancouver.  Ask yourself, how many of the homeless expected to become homeless themselves?  Did they sit around during Elementary/High School/University thinking that they are looking forward to searching through garbage bins for empty cans or sleeping on the side of the streets, alleys and parks while being addicted to drugs while suffering from mental illness?

Day 4 – December 26, 2010 – Carnegie Community Center

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Carnegie Community Center – 6pm

When I arrived at the Carnegie Community Center, I saw Brain sitting at a table.  I went over to shake his hand right away, because I have a lot of respect for that man.  I put my bags down next to a table and headed for the washroom.  In the washroom, I met a man who was cleaning the sink.  He kept on mentioning something about Whistler.  I am not sure what the connection was and I didn’t ask either.

The Carnegie Community Center has a small gym next to the cafeteria.  I noticed a woman warming up for tennis.  So I went into the gym and asked her if I could play tennis with her.  She agreed and she said that she usually brings two rackets just in case someone wanted to join in.  Her name was Faye.  We played for a few minutes and at the end of it, I thanked her for letting me play.  The numerous layers of clothes I was wearing were definitely not suitable for any type of physical activity.

When I got back, Brain and I chatted for a bit.  It is always interesting to talk to him.  There are many unique people I have met so far.  The number of unique people was about to increase yet again.  A few times now, I noticed a man wearing a cowboy hat, jeans and boots in the cafeteria.

His name was Mike.  He was always dressed really sharp.  I went up to Mike and told him that I have noticed his unique style.  He replied with “I’ve been working on it for 55 years.”  Mike was very talented.  I’m not implying that others I have met so far weren’t, but he had a very special gift in art.  He drew beautiful pictures on napkins.   Some were portraits and others were comic strips.

Once he finished his drawings he would take them home, color them and then lastly, photocopy them.  Mike’s suitcase contained many of his works of art.  His goal was to earn some money from this talent.  They were quite beautifully done.  He said he has a total of 3000 drawings at home.  Some of his drawings were destroyed in an accident; otherwise he would have a lot more today.