Tag Archives: vancouver

A Homeless Christmas published!

 

I am excited to announce that an e-book version of my blog is now available for download at Amazon.

If you would like to receive a free hard copy of this book please email me and I will ship one to you.  There are a limited number of hard copy books available!

Thank you for all your support!

Nima Farzaneh

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

Day 6 – December 28, 2010 – Ninja, Kitty, and Sharon

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Ninja, Kitty, and Sharon

I spent the last hour talking to Ninja, Kitty and Sharon.  I initially saw Ninja lying on the sidewalk listening to classical music with his sunglasses on.  That definitely caught my attention, so I asked him if it was OK for me to sit next to him and hang out for a bit.  Ninja accepted my offer.

After a few minutes, Kitty joined us and sat next to me.  I started asking her some questions about street life and she made a couple of good points about it.  I should mention that this was a relatively younger crowd then I have spent my time with over the past few days.  Ninja may have been in his early 30’s, but the two girls, Sharon and Kitty looked a lot younger.

Nevertheless, I asked Kitty if the Vancouverites were ignorant of the homeless or poor people living in this area.  “Yes, but it goes both ways.”  The homeless are often ignorant of the homefull just as the homefull are often ignorant of the homeless.  That was a fair statement to make.  I do believe that we should aim for the middle ground, so that we can have an understanding and acceptance from both sides.

Naturally, the difference in age provided me with a different perspective.  They had a very easy-going, fun and carefree attitude towards life.  I noticed this when Sharon said “spare change for absolutely no good reason at all,” to people walking by.  After about ten tries, someone smiled and offered her some change.  It seems to me that an addict of many years would have a much more jaded view on life than this group of people seems to have.

It was too hard for me to start a deep philosophical conversation with a group of four.  Had it only been one-on-one, it may have been possible.  But it really doesn’t matter.  It was nice to have some fun in a relaxed environment.  Considering all the other emotionally charged conversations I have been through in the past few days, this was refreshingly new.  This greater variety actually shows the great diversity that flourishes on the streets of Vancouver.  Kitty asked me if I had met Wizard yet.  The description she gave of him did not ring a bell, nor do I remember being introduced to anybody with that name.  She told me to meet him, and that I would be interested in getting to know him.

Day 5 – December 27, 2010 – Akshay

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Interviewing Akshay – 8pm Starbucks

I walked into Starbucks and noticed a man sitting by himself.  His name was Akshay.  I sat at the table next to him and initiated a conversation.  I wanted to know his take on homelessness.  Naturally, I shared some of my experiences with him.  He was keenly interested in the stories I was telling.  Out of all my stories so far, John the Firefighter is still the most powerful one.

After finishing that story, I showed him a picture of Mike’s drawing.  I still couldn’t get over the fact that they were all painted and drawn on a napkin!  In fact a few minutes later, Mike entered the store.  What perfect timing!  As if choreographed and scripted to perfection, Mike entered the scene.  He grabbed himself some napkins and started to do what he usually does best, draw.

Akshay was a visitor from the United States.  To be more precise, he was from Baltimore.  He also had a very interesting story to tell.  But let’s be honest here, who doesn’t have an interesting story to tell?  Every human has amazing stories to tell.  And every human is able to teach you something.

He was studying for his Ph.D. in Political Science.  He was really interested in Afghanistan and actually spent some time there as an expat.  This experience allowed him to see what life is like in a war-torn nation.  The military were treated like kings compared to the locals there.  At any moment, he could have called upon 15 SUVs or ordered the cook to make him any nation’s cuisine with a snap of a finger.  Of course, none of the locals had any of these luxuries they had.

He had a very specific interest in how tribal cultures behave towards one another and how they resolve their conflicts.  Akshay continued on saying that the more bloodshed during a battle, the greater chance of reaching diplomacy.  Unfortunately, this belief is a major part in our society and I do not subscribe to it myself.

The more powerful tribe tells the weaker group “to do as told or to face the consequences.”  Our society believes that war precedes peace, even though they are polar opposites of one another.  We often resolve issues violently without regard to our opponents’ feelings.  If we were to split the Downtown Eastside into two groups, the poor and the rich, then the more powerful group are the wealthy who dictate the future of the unprivileged parts of our society.  How do we go about reaching a diplomatic solution between these two ethnic groups?

My philosophy on this issue is very simple indeed.  I do not believe that we can make friends through violence or fighting one another.  If I came up to you and punched you in the face, I am sure that you may do as I say, but it would be out of fear and not out of love.  Clearly, you would have anger and resentment towards me.

The equation I present to you is even simpler in writing and it goes as follows:

Hate + Hate = Hate

Love + Love = Love

Hate + Love = Less Hate

After sharing all of my positive experiences with him, Akshay mentioned that Baltimore was different from the Downtown Eastside.  Akshay said that there are frequent homicides in Baltimore.  In fact a few weeks ago, a boy was stabbed in his neighborhood.

At this point, even Mike joined in on our conversation.  Keep in mind that the Downtown Eastside is often considered as being one of “the worst parts in North America.”  It’s been given a very bad reputation by our media and our citizens alike.  Mike confessed that he’d been walking down Hastings Street for about 15 years now and never had any altercations with anyone in the past.

Next, Mike shared with us his newly learned life lesson.  He said that “the greater the amount of eye contact one makes with another person, the better.”  Mike used to believe that we should never look each other in the eye, because it could potentially start an argument.  But he recently refuted that old fact of his.

Anyway, the theme seems rather similar each time.  If you do not steal money from someone here or if you are not involved in the drug trade, people will generally mind their own business.  I’m sure that there are some unlikely situations that can erupt at any given moment.  In general, fights usually start with the words “where is money?”

Day 4 – December 26, 2010 – Save Our City

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Save our City

I started heading towards Main and Hastings when I was greeted by a man named Dino.  Dino’s philosophy on life was quite simple; every day is a like a New Year and try not to make the same mistake twice.  Material things in life are meaningless, they come and go, but the smile I gave him made his day.  It was really that simple.  Just stopping and having a quick chat can uplift a person’s mood considerably.

One great thing about the homeless community is that they literally do not judge me at all.  I haven’t showered for four days, I have been wearing the same outfit for four days and I always carry the same garbage bag with the same contents for four days.  And through all of this, whenever I greet a man or a woman on the streets, I get a “hello” in return.

These people do not care if I drive a nice car, have a beautiful girlfriend, own nice clothes, have a great education or have any past accomplishments.  The fact is that they recognize me as a fellow human being and I provide them with the same recognition.

Imagine that I had to attend a billionaire’s club meeting.  As soon as I enter this club, I will be judged.  I would have to prove to them my past accomplishments, how wealthy I am and my education level.  We would notice that the wealthiest communities have to market themselves just to gain the respect of other members, whereas in the other case, the homeless community, you are as you are.

I’m hanging out in the back alley by Water Street again.  A man named Owen was walking his dog along that stretch.  I started asking him how he feels about the homeless here in Vancouver.  We both agreed that it is a horrible situation to be in.  We also agreed that people here have a lot of potential.  I was surprised to hear that Owen and his friends were considering a similar project to mine.  It seems like more and more people are warming up to the idea that the homeless aren’t evil, bad, lazy or dangerous people.  But instead that many contributing factors and circumstances in life lead them to where they are today.

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.

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.”