Tag Archives: UGM

Day 7 – December 29, 2010 – Where to sleep tonight?

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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.


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 2 – December 24, 2010 – Waiting for the bus

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Waiting for the bus

As Jay and I were waiting for the bus, he told me about his previous Union Gospel Mission experience.  A few days ago the priest threatened a lifetime of hell to all the impoverished non-believers.   This priest went on preaching that “Jesus will either send you to heaven or have you rot in hell”.  Jay was able to see through these scare tactics that religious establishments tend to use frequently and said “I’m sure that the real Jesus would never wish such a thing to anybody.”  He envisioned that Jesus would get along with all kinds of people, no matter if one was a criminal, prostitute, physically disabled, mentally disabled or a drug addict.  Why would Jesus want God’s creations to rot in hell?

Jay started telling me why he was here.  He started a shipping company with someone he had known for two years.  That man claimed to be very religious. He would always carry a statue of the Virgin Mary with him and never did drugs.  However, that man did not turn out to be the kind of person that Jay thought he would be.  Jay naively trusted people too quickly, because he was a self-proclaimed love addict.

One of the shipments that went through was filled with 100 kilograms of cocaine and amphetamines.  The government seized his property and left him with nothing.  Now is this a lesson for me not to trust others so quickly or is it a story of an innocent man being framed for something he didn’t do?  He claimed his innocence and I believed him.

Jay was then sent to jail.  While he was in jail, he asked for the Bible.   He wanted to find the words “Anti-Christ” but he said he failed to find it.  Everybody talks about the Anti-Christ, so why was there no mention of it in the Bible?  Next he started reading the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den.  Why? He wasn’t sure.  He read a few pages of it and put the book down.  He then put in a request to meet with a priest.  Jay wanted someone to come and pray with him.

I believe a nun came to help him pray.  Before they started praying, she decided to read a section of the Bible to him.  Out of the entire book, which is probably around 1000 pages long, the nun picked the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den.  She did not even read the story from the beginning; she started where Jay left off!

Jay was blown away by this coincidence.  I guess the master of magicians cast another spell and Jay was aware of this trick.  Is this magician always casting spells for us to discover?  Eric, whom I met yesterday, would definitively agree with that statement.  Towards the end of their meeting, Jay confessed to the nun that he was innocent.  She looked at him and started to cry, “I know that you are innocent Jay”.  Being the sensitive man that he is, Jay also started to tear up.  They both cried together.

When the bus arrived, I told the driver that I had no money.  Two transit police officers were standing at the front of the bus.  One of the officers asked me where I was sleeping tonight.  I told him that I was homeless.  He reached in his pocket, handed me an envelope and said “Merry Christmas”.  There was a $5 gift certificate to McDonald’s in there.

Day 2 – December 24, 2010 – Meet Jay

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Meet Jay

We were all hurried out of the cafeteria.  I told Jay that I would wait for him outside.  The Union Gospel Mission’s (UGM) exit doors lead straight into the alley.   I waited for about five minutes until he came.  We started having a conversation while finishing our meals, when we were interrupted by a phone call.   Jay walked off to the side to get more privacy leaving me to myself.

A UGM staff member, named Connor, came out and started talking to me.  Right away, I complained about the insufficient time allocated for our dinner.  It was Christmas Eve after all.  In retrospect, they did give me a meal and I should be thankful for that.  Ironically, a few minutes before this conversation, Jay and I were discussing how people on the streets were treated like kings as well.  I came here to make life hard on myself, but I haven’t been through any hardship yet.  There were no signs ahead of that either.  We continued talking about why we deserved to be treated so nicely in this world.  Have we been good in our past lives or something?  Then his phone interrupted us.

Connor told me that they were constructing a larger building next to the current one.  They will be moving locations in the next few months.  Maybe then the impoverished people can sit around and discuss the meaning of life and have debates on God.   For some reason, I am still skeptical for that to occur.  I told Connor about my week-long mission.  He gave me two tinfoil emergency blankets to keep me warm at night.   He also offered me to take advantage of the shelter that they provide.

When my conversation with Connor ended, I went up to Jay to tell him that I’ll be waiting at the front for him.  As I walked up to Jay, I noticed that both of his eyes were filled with tears.  At this moment, I do not know what happened to me.  I did not know this man, but just as if I was looking in the mirror, my eyes started to tear up as well.

When he finished his phone call, Jay and another person waiting for the shelter to open, convinced me to stay here for the night.   They were saying that lots of beds were available and they reassured me that I would not be taking a needy person’s spot.

So I went inside.  They made us fill out a short form.  “Reason for being homeless”: I filled in “by choice, raise-awareness”.  The other two questions on the form were much more interesting.   What are my religious affiliations and religious beliefs?  Jay and I asked how complete this form should be and the person working at the desk asked me what my religious affiliation was.   I told him that I was Gnostic.  The staff member asked if I had meant Agnostic, I replied with a No.  Gnostic is written without the “a” prefix.  An Agnostic is a person who is not sure of God’s existence.  A Gnostic is someone who knows that God exists.  Jay looked at me and said with a smile, “Gnosis is to Know”.  He decided to fill his religious affiliation with the word Gnostic as well.

It was 9 pm when we finished checking in.  I asked one of the organizers for a hot cup of water.  They were reluctant to give me hot water initially, but they eventually got me one.  I asked if Jay wanted tea as well.  He nodded.  It was such a hassle getting that one cup of hot water, so I am not sure how we were going to get the second one.  We politely asked the staff member and apologized for any inconveniences we may have caused.  So with each of us holding a cup of tea, we walked outside to talk.  This place was meant for sleeping only.  There were no places to chat and we didn’t want to disturb anybody.

We talked about God, philosophy and life in general.  We had two hours to talk before the shelter’s doors closed.  There were no ins and outs after 11 pm.   At one point in our conversation, I could see one of the UGM representatives stare at us through the window with his eyes wide open.  He may have been suspicious of us, and probably wanted to know what we were up to.  We were just drinking tea and exchanging stories.

The way the UGM was set up, as I have alluded to earlier, was that there was no room to hang out in, and so it was difficult to host open discussions on God.  So to me, the UGM failed their mission.  Jay wanted to leave this shelter and go to another one.  He could not stand the smell of fermented feet.  So we walked to catch the bus on Hastings, with the hope that the Salvation Army shelter would be more hygienic than this one.

Day 2 – December 24, 2010 – UGM again

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Union Gospel Mission – Christmas Eve

I decided to have dinner at the Union Gospel Mission for a second time.  This time, there were no tents set up outside.  When I arrived, I had to wait in the bread line for over an hour.   While I was waiting for the bread line to open, a man came up to everybody and said “if you were to die today, would you go to heaven or hell?”  This man then smiled, handed out a brochure and responded to his own question by saying: “Read this.  This is the way to heaven”.   When he asked me, I told him that I was already there.  He gave me the brochure and walked off without asking whether I meant heaven or hell.

I have to admit, the bread line is amazing.  Once it was my turn, I had a lot to choose from.  I was given bread, pastries, brownies, and croissants to take with me.  They were generously handing out full bags of food to everyone.  I had to stop them from giving me more food.  Some people walked off with five or six bags full of groceries.  My bag should last me throughout my stay in the downtown eastside, which is why I stopped them from giving me more food.

When the bread line was finished, a new line up formed; this line was for dinner.  The dinner lineup moved much quicker.  Then we were all gathered in a small room that seated about 60 people.  The priest, his family and some of his local church members started singing us Christmas carols.  The guy sitting next to me had a Bible in his hand and was praying attentively, others were not as keen.

After the songs were finished, the priest made us watch a 20-minute documentary of the Bible.  This video was a condensed version of the bible from start to finish.  Some of the details were completely new to me.  I started eating some of my bread.  I couldn’t wait any longer; I was starving.  Once the movie was finished, dinner was served.

Next, we moved to the cafeteria.  There the tables had food served.  On the menu today was BBQ pulled pork with mashed potatoes.  While everybody around me was discussing how delicious their food was, I was starting to feel sick from it.  Pork is a very heavy meat to digest for a vegetarian.   I never said it was good or bad; I just kept my head down and ate what I could eat.

I started chatting with some of the people sitting next to me.  One man said that he had been homeless in other parts of Canada in the past and that Vancouver is one of the best cities to be homeless.  According to him, the homeless here are treated kindly and are taken care of.  He also added that the food at the UGM is slightly better than what they serve in jail.  I am assuming he had experience in saying this or else he wouldn’t have said it.

One of the staff members shouted “Few more minutes to finish your food!”  We were all ordered to finish our meals quickly.  I was shocked.  I thought this place was about connecting to others spiritually?  Isn’t this a great time to share our spiritual beliefs?  We sat in the other room for half an hour listening to carols and watching a movie, but we are not given enough time to finish our meals?  I was later told that this place worked like an assembly line.  The cafeteria needs to be cleared for the next group to enter.  However, tonight this place has to be cleared out quickly and early, so that it can turn into a shelter at night.

People started leaving.  Being a slow eater myself, this added pressure prohibited me from finishing my meal.  I looked over to my left and noticed that there was a man eating a completely vegetarian dish!  I smiled at him in disbelief and confessed that I was breaking my year-and-a-half-long habit as of yesterday. He smiled and we started a conversation, his name was Jay.

Day 1 – December 23, 2010 – UGM

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The Union Gospel Mission (UGM) – 6pm

Before heading out onto the streets, I donated 77 meals ($3.29/meal X 77 meals = $253.33) to the Union Gospel Mission (UGM).  Here is the receipt to prove it.  This is not to show off or to say that I am a generous person, but rather it is to prevent people from saying things like “you shouldn’t take away from the needy”.   I did not take anything away from them.  I went there to learn and leave them better off by writing about my experiences for others to read.

When I arrived at the UGM, a large tent set up to feed hundreds of people.  Live music was also playing inside the tent.  I parked my shopping cart, took my garbage bag out and entered the tent.  As soon as I sat down, I was served a plate of food.  On the menu today was turkey covered in gravy, ham and mashed potatoes.

Well, here it is.  I have been vegetarian for a year and a half now, but as I’ve outlined in my mission before undergoing this project, “beggars can’t be choosers”.  I will be eating anything that is offered to me without objection.  And as expected, turkey and ham did not sit very well in my stomach.  I did not throw up, but my stomach did not feel comfortable digesting it.

The volunteers there were very friendly.  A lady clearing the table asked me how my food was.  I told her that it was good and that “she is doing a great thing”.  She replied with a modest “well, we do what we can”.  Across from my table, two people were not so grateful for their services.  Food was not served to them right away and that fueled them with more anger.  They kept on calling the volunteers over to their table.  They wanted them to serve their food, but their response was slow.  Once one of the volunteers answered their call; they requested “non-burnt turkey this time”.  With this negativity around me, it was time to direct my focus and attention back within my body.