Tag Archives: kenneth trevail

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 – Louis

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Louis

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.

Day 7 – December 29, 2010 – Departing with the “Godfather”

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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.

Day 6 – December 28, 2010 – My friends

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My friends

I could see my friends walking towards us from a distance.  When I got up to greet them, Dave got up too and asked them for some change.  Seeing me with Dave may have influenced my friends’ decision to not want to shake my hand.  They were probably scared that some “homeless germs” would hop on their skin and infect them.  I didn’t expect my friends to pass such stereotypical judgments.

Later in the night, Kenneth said that I’ve become more open-minded and non-judgmental through my experience.  And if I was to discuss my point of view to the public now, it would be strongly rejected.  Our indoctrinated ideas and philosophies are simply racist, prejudice and discriminatory.

We were not born with these racist, prejudice or discriminatory ideas of the homeless.  Therefore, we must have learned them after birth.  As Nelson Mandela put it, “people must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”  These labels we place on each other only stumps the growth in our society.

The impoverished people are not animals.  They are human beings.  In fact, they are more human than most people I meet.  It has now become my duty to convince others that this is true.  When I told my friends that I wanted them to meet my new friend Kenneth, they all rejected the idea rather quickly.  It was my birthday and I wanted to hang out with them, but they weren’t interested in meeting a “bum in an alley.”

Disappointed, I decided to go to Starbucks and drink tea with them instead.  I told them the story of Gilles.  One of my friends asked me if I had any of the tenant’s phone numbers to confirm Gilles’ story.  That was a fair statement to make, because I am simply repeating stories.  Some stories were validated by people who knew the person in question and for the others; evidence seemed to have come together on its own.

A few days ago, someone studying at Blenz overheard the conversation that I was having with Gilles.  He approached us and said that he also knew someone who ripped off the same way Gilles was describing.  Interestingly enough, it happened in the same building.  Another point to make was that Gilles had some of the residents’ phone numbers.  They were willing to confess of the fraudulent activities that were taking place within that building.  Lastly, Gilles’ story was very intricate and detailed.  Some of it could be exaggerated, but to say that the entire thing was made up is a stretch.

Before my friends left, I asked them if I could use their phone.  My phone died a few days ago and I wanted to call my mom to tell her that I was doing well.  They were all very reluctant to let me use their phones!  They worried that my homeless ear would contaminate their non-homeless phones.  I could not believe what I was hearing!

The sad thing was that I have known these guys for many years now.  I guess they believed that I contracted some incurable disease during my stay here.  They are well aware that I do not do any drugs.  Sharing needles is the most common way of spreading infectious diseases in the Downtown Eastside and I was not experimenting with any of that.

This experience with my friends shed more light on this whole issue and created a new challenge for me.  How do I open the minds of people who are so caught up in their own belief system?  I am sure that most people reading this blog are open-minded enough to read someone’s actual and real experience.  The ones that are closed-minded would not even spend a minute reading anything I have written here.  That is because their minds are already made up.

It is always uncomfortable for people to step out of their truth or reality.  But where did the people get the beliefs they have?  Did they, just like researchers, go out into a lab and perform reproducible experiments and come to the conclusions they have today?  I highly doubt it.  People fear alleys, fear the Downtown Eastside, fear the homeless and judge them as scums of the earth without ever getting to know a single one without passing judgement.

Day 6 – December 28, 2010 – Happy Birthday to me

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Happy Birthday to me! – Midnight

Happy Birthday to me!  I spent an hour talking to Kenneth in his alley.  I really enjoyed hearing his metaphor: “the earth is our apple and we need to stop rotting it.”  On my birthday, I would like to drink tea and introduce my friends to Kenneth.  We agreed to introduce them at 4:20 pm on December 28 in his alley.  I guess something that I didn’t know before was that Kenneth’s alley is actually pot central alley.

I don’t support the usage of drugs, but I don’t consider marijuana much of a drug compared to alcohol.  Alcohol is a much more potent and damaging drug than marijuana is.  Alcohol causes hundreds of deadly drinking and driving accidents each year and incites violence in many cases.  People who smoke marijuana would rather hug it out, whereas drunkards would rather fight it out.  I think it makes more sense to have weed be legal than alcohol.  Of course there are exceptions to everything and drugs do affect people differently.  It is better to enjoy life without having to take any narcotics that alter the reality we live in.

Anyway, today is my big day.  I turn 28.  As I was heading to Blenz, I could see Sean greeting me with a smile.  He remembered that it was my birthday, so he prepared a large cup of hot water for me even before I entered the store.  At this time, I had already run out of tea bags; so I’ve grown accustomed to drinking just plain hot water.

I decided to warm up and dry before going to sleep tonight.  Not only did Sean prepare hot water for me, but he also gave me a free marble cake as a birthday gift; thank you Sean for remembering and for being generous.  Feeling welcome anywhere gives a humanistic feeling that goes beyond any descriptive words which make up our language.  Being homeless, not belonging or feeling unwelcome in this world is a major hurdle for anybody in life.  I’m sure that over time, even the strongest men and women would break down after being rejected every day by the people who make up our so-called civilized society.

I’ve decided to have a slight change to my project.  I’m going to sleep in what they call “crack alley” on my last night here.  I’m going to take out my camera from my pocket while staying there to make sure that I do not lose any of my photos.  Kenneth said that he would take a picture of me to offer some evidence for this event.

Some of you may ask why I’d do such a thing.  Well, I want to challenge every stereotype that exists in this city.  Kenneth was suggesting that I should get a spy-cam and walk around Hastings, so that people get a real experience of what it is like in this neighborhood.  I am sure that would change people’s opinion of this area.

Human beings are beautiful or hateful creatures.  I think it’s time to choose a more positive outlook in our world and we can start right here in our backyard.  Picture Vancouver as a role model city for others to follow.  All of this depends on how big you – the people – want this dream to become.  Let’s turn our world into a “Garden of Eden” and let’s break out of the stereotypes that exist within our minds and hearts to become a free, peace-loving human race.

I hope my experience can shed some light on what the Eastside is really about.  If it doesn’t, then I guess I have become just another person who had a life-changing experience.  But I highly doubt that.  All of these stories turn into seeds which could potentially germinate at some later point if the circumstances are right for growth.

I’ve been sitting here at Blenz for a while now.  The weather outside is cold and rainy.  This chill made a few people take refuge inside this 24-hour business.  Lawrence, who you will meet next, was one of these people seeking refuge from the cold.

Day 4 – December 26, 2010 – Blenz

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Blenz – 6am

It is a very busy time of the season.  What would happen if families start celebrating Christmas the day after Boxing Day?  One thing would be for sure; those families would save a lot of money on presents.

I didn’t sleep too well last night because it was really cold.  In fact, I woke up shivering.  Connor, the guy from the UGM, gave me two emergency blankets to cover myself with.  I thank him for those, but they didn’t seem to do the trick quite as well as they did the other night.

Source: Nicole’s Photos (under links)

Nevertheless, I left a big part of Kenneth’s conversation out in my last post.  I am going to address that here now.  As a child, he was raised in a broken family.  At the age of ten, problems at home were so severe that Kenneth and his sister were forced to live in a foster home.  There, these kids were turned into laborers for the foster family.  Kenneth’s duty included making moonshine and maintaining the family’s lumber business, while his sister worked tirelessly cleaning the house.  They barely spent time with each other.

These experiences turned Kenneth into an unhappy teenager, which then contributed to a life of anger, resentment, drugs, partying and breaking the law.  In his rebellion, he committed armed robbery.  This was 24 years ago.  If he was given the choice, he would certainly pick a different life for himself; but these were the cards he was dealt with.  While he was in custody for armed robbery, he confessed all of his wrongdoings to the police, which helped to clear up previous cases.

Needless to say, Kenneth had to serve time.  One of his jail stories is worth mentioning here.  Some criminals are marked with a tattoo on their backhand.  This tattoo is located between the index finger and thumb.  It is usually a small cross with three dots around it; there are slight variations of this tattoo based on which prison one is in.  Kenneth refused to get this tattoo, which made his inmates harass him.

Why were inmates marked at all?  How discriminatory and static!  People do change; Kenneth was a great example of that.  In fact, everybody in this world goes through change from birth to death.  Surely, you are not the same person you were ten years ago?  Some criminals see this mark as a sign of respect for “crossing over to the dark side” and as proof of having experienced the good and the bad sides of life.  To these inmates, this is interpreted as being a well-rounded individual who can be trusted not to be a “rat.”

After getting out of his two-year jail sentence, Kenneth started to experiment with crack.  He was doing crack for 12 years when one day, while walking through a Vancouver alley, he felt water dumping on him.  He looked up, down and around to see if there was actually a cloud up in the sky or whether there were any signs of water.   There were no signs of water.  Kenneth perceived this as God’s way of communicating to him.  This was a wake-up call.  Shortly after this experience, he gave up crack.  Today, he is disgusted by this drug and would not touch it with a ten-foot pole.

Day 3 – December 25, 2010 – Merry Christmas Kenneth

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Merry Christmas Kenneth

After meeting with Sandra, I decided to check up on Kenneth again.  Part of his life story was actually published in the Vancouver Magazine titled The Caretaker, but Kenneth didn’t like that label.  He felt that we are all caretakers of the earth.  His role is to keep this alley clean; others should be responsible for different areas.  The end goal is to preserve this beautiful space for everybody to enjoy and live in.

His sleeping space was covered by a movable metal gate.  I approached it and said, “Kenneth, it’s me Nima.  I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas.”  A soft voice replied and told me to slide the gate over.  There he was, hiding under his blankets on Christmas Day.  Kenneth seemed reserved and quiet.

We had an excellent conversation about life, school and everything in between.  I shared some of my street experiences with him.  I told him about John the Firefighter.  He acknowledged the validity of the story and commented on the others as well.  He seemed to know most of my characters.  Later on, I would refer to Kenneth as “the Godfather” of the streets, because all my questions and problems were addressed to him.  He had all the answers.  After living on the streets for so many years, Kenneth had the experience which I lacked.

Next, we discussed what it means to have a good debate and concluded that a great debate is being able to follow logical statements without the use of emotions.  Logic and emotions are like oil is to water.  There should not be any anger, happiness, hate or love in a purely logical debate.  Once you get feelings mixed in there it becomes very difficult to discuss freely.

Kenneth was a smart man.  He worked for the Department of National Defense with an annual income of $120,000.  His duties included entering data and maintaining networks in the late 70′s.  Later on in his life, he “took himself off the grid” to be where is he now.  When I asked him why he came to this very specific alley, his answer was simple; God.

As we continued chatting, a car passed by, slammed on his breaks, and then reversed.  This was going to be my second experience with the Vancouver Police Department.  Earlier in the day, I was questioned by an officer on Granville Street.  In this case, it didn’t take long for the officer to call for backup.  In a few minutes, two police cars and three officers were surrounding me and Kenneth.

Source: The Vancouver Sun

Later on Kenneth would tell me that if this was a noise violation then the officer would have known where we were sitting and therefore would have stopped earlier without backing up.  Also, the backup officers would have been with him already, but they weren’t.  The backup officers were called in after the officer started his “preemptive strike” on two civilians who were minding their own business.  We had the right to be here.

To be fair, police officers are never get called in to blow out candles at a birthday party while on duty.  Whenever they get called into a situation, they come face to face with danger, anger, theft and violence.  They have to be cautious when they interact with strangers.  As far as they know, I can be dangerous as well.  However, nobody called the police on us because we were not noisy nor were we breaking any laws.

“Well officer, I have a home but I chose to be homeless over my Christmas holidays.  I want to spend time with the other family.  I’m keeping a journal of all the people I meet, so that I can give a more accurate representation of who these homeless people really are.  The documentary Streets of Plenty did an OK job, but I want to dig much deeper than the documentary did itself.”

“Do you have a criminal record?  Let me search your pockets.”  He went through my bag and started reading the first few pages of my journal.  A police officer is supposed to intervene in public affairs when a person is a threat or is causing a violation of the law.  However in reality, we were just chatting about life.

This reminded me of the police officer that interrogated me earlier in the day, not long after meeting John the Firefighter at McDonald’s.  While I was sitting on the side of the street, a police officer came up to me and asked me similar questions.  Just like the current incident, I told them the truth about why I was here.

“Do you have a criminal record?”

“No.”

“Are you mentally ill?”

“No.”

“Are you sure you don’t have a criminal record?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure you are not mentally ill?”

“Yes.”

This questioning was quite ridiculous and insulting, but I can see how my story could raise an eyebrow.  These officers probably haven’t heard of such a story before.  The cop on Granville Street was actually very nice to me.  He asked me if I needed anything before he left and took down my blog address.  The current officer that I am faced with is much more serious than the last one.

This officer had a really hard time believing my story.  I asked him the following, “How will I ever know how anything feels like until I actually try it?  For example, how do you know what Yogurt tastes like when you have never tasted it yourself?”  He replied, “well then why don’t you start doing drugs to get the complete feel then?”

Misha Kleider smoking crack in his documentary

I know that the maker of Streets of Plenty, Misha Kleider, ended up doing crack and heroin in his documentary, but drugs are a stereotypical by-product of these people’s lives.  I do not support the recreational or addictive usage of drugs.  I like reality the way I perceive it; I do not need to change it.  And besides, by doing drugs my senses will be warped.  I am here to experience homelessness with an untainted sense of reality.

The police officer pulled me to the side.  “Listen kid.  I’ve known Kenneth for a long time.  He has a very violent history.  I don’t know who you are, but you should keep your distance from him.”  First of all, why did he have to pull me to the side to tell me this?  Couldn’t he have just said it in front of Kenneth and the other two officers?

So we both walked back to where Kenneth and the other two officers were standing.  He told everyone that he reminded me to be careful on these streets.  Kenneth replied saying “yes officer, I have told him that as well.”  This was true, Kenneth did tell me that a few times actually.  In fact, he even said that I shouldn’t trust him!

After Kenneth said those words, the officer replied with “yeah but you are a good one Kenneth.”  The officer just contradicted himself here!  When he pulled me to the side, he said that Kenneth was a dangerous man and that I should be careful around him.  When the officers left, I told Kenneth what the officer told me in secret.  We both laughed at the incident.