In Aboriginal culture, it is a common belief that storytelling is the best way to teach children, pass on legends and strengthen relationships and family. On the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, over thirty percent of people struggling with homelessness and addiction are Aboriginal. Yet, we fail to use storytelling to help them heal. So often we offer food, clothing and shelter to meet their basic needs. We forget about the emotional needs. Recently on Facebook, a news story went viral. It spoke of two states in the USA that have decided to stop issuing welfare cheques to anyone failing a drug test. Some friends of mine hit the ‘like button’. And you know what? I don’t blame them. I get it. Why should we as a society pay tax dollars to give money to someone who will spend it on drugs. They must be making a choice right? I understand the frustration. Yet, I wonder, if these friends of mine would hit the ‘like’ button if they understood a little more about addiction. If we choose to look deeper, we can see that the drugs are not the problem. They are merely an inadequate solution – to a problem that lies deeper – the problem that we really should address. What I know from working on the Downtown Eastside is this. Not everybody is homeless, not everybody is an addict, not everybody is sick – but everybody is in pain. The pain began in a variety of ways. For some it began as childhood trauma, for others it stems from abuse (sexual, physical or emotional). Some grew up in ministry care while others were mistreated at residential schools. Each person has a different story, but what I know from my work over the past five years is that every person living on the streets of the Downtown Eastside feels the pain. They are not there for the drugs. They are there for the escape from their reality, and for many, each hit offers temporary pain relief. They are lonely, they are lost, but they are human, and they matter. And each of them has a story to tell; a story worth sharing, so we on the outside can understand.
If we truly want to help an individual break the cycle of addiction, then my belief is that we have to change the way we respond. We need to go ‘Beyond HELLO’ – beyond the basic needs, and start to address the emotional needs. Just as Aboriginal Culture suggest, storytelling is a powerful way to teach, to heal and to learn. It empowers the storyteller to find their voice and it captures the listener and leaves them a little different than they were before the story began. I know these stories have changed me. I hope they change you too.
It’s now 10 PM and I sit here typing, smiling at the way today’s events unfolded. I am so grateful to my students who help make this project a reality, and to the residents of the Downtown Eastside, who time after time, allow themselves to show courage and vulnerability as they share their stories with us. Today was no different – yet it had a different beginning. Usually with ‘Beyond HELLO Vancouver’ we journey to the DTES and take someone for lunch. Later I sit and type out their story. However, just before I left my home, I felt ready to write. This didn’t really make much sense as the experience had yet to begin and I was already running late to pick up Anoop, the student who would join me for the day. However, the need was there and I felt I had to get my thoughts down. Rather than writing, I used the recording feature on my phone and recorded myself talking. I recited the paragraphs above that you just read. Interesting, because at the time, I had no idea whether or not the story we would hear today would have anything to do with Aboriginal culture or storytelling. Sitting here now writing this, I’m smiling, knowing what I have always known about this project. It is bigger than me. It is not something I create – but something that seems to unfold. I love that this happens to me, and that I am there to experience it. Today’s story is about Cynthia, a strong, beautiful Aboriginal woman who offers light and warmth to the Downtown Eastside. With her permission, here is my interpretation of today’s events and her life story.
Around noon, I picked up my former student Anoop and headed to the Downtown Eastside. Anoop asked how we would pick the one person to join us for lunch. I smiled and explained that we don’t really pick – we let someone find us. I let Anoop know we would walk the streets and say hello to people and when we felt like it was the right person, we would ask them to join us for lunch. We walked up and down Hastings Street for five to ten minutes. We smiled in recognition to many – many we remember from Christmas’s past where they have written to loved ones with Project HELLO. ‘Steven King’ stood guarding his community garden. Behind him, a sign attached to the fence read ‘drug free area’ yet attached to the sign is a pocket tray of clean needles. Not a surprise – as images of contrast are everywhere on Hastings Street. Fancy cars driving by people with their life’s belongings in shopping carts, yuppie condos built next to shelters, and so many speckles of beauty scattered amongst the dark streets. As we passed the community garden we saw a barefoot woman, rocking back and forth, leaning on a shopping cart for support. Her hair was orange and buzz cut, she appeared in pain but high on drugs, yet at the same time, intently focused on the last few pages of a book that she balanced on the shopping cart. As I walked by I glanced down to see what she was reading. Pride and Prejudice. A long and difficult read for a neighborhood where many have only an elementary school education. I smiled and walked on, unfortunately not knowing until later, that the woman was Cindy – the woman who we reconnected with her daughter in our first month of Beyond HELLO. I did not recognize her with out her long beautiful hair. However, knowing Cindy’s boisterous personality with wild, ever-changing emotions, I could not help but smile knowing her drastic change in hair style was likely a spontaneous decision.
As we approached the ‘mall’ which is the roughest block of Hastings (on the North Side between Columbia and Carrall) we passed a lady who I recognized from July. In month one, this woman had walked passed David and I on the south side of Hastings. She made a comment to us saying something like “be careful down here – there’s a full moon and they are crazy today!” We smiled and explained a bit about our project. She beamed with motherly pride as we shared our work. We showed her a picture of Cindy and she agreed to take our phone number down in case she saw Cindy before us. We didn’t have a spare pen so we went with her to the Pigeon Community Bank to use a notepad and pen. In our talks she told us she used to be called Cindy as well. Both Cindy and Cindy had gone through re-hab together years ago. This Cindy had stayed clean. Deciding that she was moving forward with her life – she left ‘Cindy’ behind – and became Cynthia. Today as we ran into Cynthia, she recognized me but couldn’t quite remember where from. I reminded her about the help she had offered. Again she beamed with pride for our work. I asked if she knew if Cindy was still alive. She then told me I had just passed her – as she was the one with the orange buzz cut. She let me know Cindy is not doing well as her leg is very infected yet she now refuses to wear shoes as she walks Hastings. A part of me wanted to run back and say hi, yet a part of me wanted to stay exactly where I was, intrigued by Cynthia’s strength and wanting to know more about her own journey and her resilience to battle through life’s most difficult hurdles. I asked if she would like to share her story with us over lunch. In a split second, she eagerly agreed and together Anoop, Cynthia and I walked down the street planning on dining at Save On Meats.
As we approached, we saw that Save On Meats was boarded up, closed for renovations. However, next to it, a newer restaurant was open. It is called ‘Lost and Found’ café. The name alone seemed like a natural fit for our project, so we entered the café. Inside we discovered a café celebrating world travel, art and philanthropy. One wall displayed black and white portraits of the DTES amongst images of other hardships around the world. The centre of the restaurant offered a variety of gifts, all backed by a big sign saying ‘Have a Heart’ – with proceeds from all items going to charitable organizations. Cynthia, Anoop and I ordered lunch and found a table near the window. A table where looking one direction showed images of Hastings Street, yet looking the other way offered the cozy sanctuary of a modern café.
Our lunch arrived and Cynthia began to share her story.
Cynthia is a citizen of the To-quaht Band, one of the smallest First Nations, situated between Ucluelet and Port Alberni. She grew up in Port Alberni on the reserve, with few restrictions. As she recalls, you could drink and party at any age. By grade six, she was drinking alcohol and stopped attending school. Her mother would come in and out of her life, but spent most of her time in Seattle. Her father worked in logging so he was not able to be around much. Her mother’s parents served in a parental role raising Cynthia and her siblings. Cynthia and her grandmother had a special bond. Even though there were eight children in the house, her grandmother would always wake up Cynthia in the middle of the night when she had a special story to share. She would put on her kettle, make some tea and wake Cynthia saying “I don’t like sitting alone – let me tell you a story”. Cynthia relished these moments and would awake from deep sleeps to hear her grandmother’s stories: stories her grandmother passed down from her own childhood. I smiled and told Cynthia a little about my grandparents and the special memories I have spending time with them. I understand completely the bond she speaks of. Cynthia also shared a story of a dream she had one night as a child – a dream that one day she would have her own flower shop. Cynthia found comfort in the images of such a dream.
Cynthia’s grandfather on her father’s side was Chief in Ucluelet and therefore some of Cynthia’s childhood was marked with ceremonial tradition. When she entered womanhood at age twelve her band celebrated that very day with a ‘Coming of Age’ party. Her brothers dressed in wolf regalia and were instructed to be next to her – two on her left and two on her right. They had to follow her for the day and sit together at the community hall. Cynthia remembers this as a powerful experience yet also a challenging day for a twelve-year-old to endure when really she wanted to run and play.
Unfortunately these days did not last. After her grandpa on her mother’s side died, the ministry stepped in and found new homes for Cynthia and her siblings. Some went to live with aunts, while Cynthia and one of her sisters were put into foster care in Cumberland BC. They were placed with a Caucasian family who treated them well and had strong religious values. After about four months of living with them, the family let the girls know they were going to make a drive to Port Alberni to return bottles at the bottle depot. They asked the girls if they would like to accompany them and visit their relatives in Port Alberni. The girls agreed and travelled to the reserve to visit. Once arriving, her friend Danny’s family hid the girls so they never returned into foster care. This left Cynthia experiencing a range of emotion. Why did the ministry need to find her a new home in the first place? Why was it so easy to escape? Why didn’t she ever hear from her foster family again? As Cynthia struggled to find answers, she found comfort in a relationship with her friend Danny. When she turned 16, her father asked her and Danny to come for dinner. During dinner he let her know it was time for her to get married. She was married to Danny for six years, yet by age 22 she needed to escape the cycle of drinking and abuse. She recalls one evening when Danny dragged her out of a community dance by pulling her hair. Danny’s older brother stepped in and beat Danny threatening to hurt him again if he ever beat his wife. Ironically Danny’s brother had also been beating his wife, however, when he saw his younger brother repeat the cycle it helped him stop his own violence. At 22 Cynthia knew she needed to leave the reserve to feel safe. Danny and her had two children but Cynthia was raising them on her own. When Danny returned to town she let him know it was his turn and she needed to take care of herself. She headed to East Vancouver, following the path of her thirteen year old sister.
When Cynthia arrived in East Vancouver (29 years ago) she played a motherly role to her younger sister who was actively using drugs. Cynthia was determined to stay clean and managed to do so for two years. One evening, Cynthia and her boyfriend went for drinks with another couple. The other couple offered them T’s and R’s (T’s and R’s are also referred to as poor man’s heroin. The T stands for Talwin, a painkiller, and the R for Ritalin, a stimulant. When injected together they produce a high similar to the effects of cocaine mixed with heroin). To Cynthia’s surprise her boyfriend said yes, letting her know for the first time that he had used in the past. Wanting to know what her sister experienced, Cynthia decided to try her first hit. The experience made her incredibly sick yet she recalls waking up the next day feeling like her mind had taken over her body and she wanted more. Her sister prostituted to earn money to buy drugs and pay her rent. Eventually her sister and the sister’s boyfriend told Cindy she needed to start contributing. She needed to pay money too. Her sister convinced her to turn her first trick and work the corner. Craving the high of T’s and R’s Cynthia decided to work the corner once to get the money she needed. Today, 29 years later Cynthia’s eyes watered as she tells us about her very first night working the street. She had never felt so much shame. Despite the money she earned she remembers bypassing the drugs and coming home to the bath washing herself and drowning herself in tears. Her need to feel clean surpassed her need for the drugs, yet a cycle had begun – a cycle hard to escape. Like many girls working the streets, Cynthia eventually learned how to separate herself from her experiences. She found a job cleaning for an elderly couple, shopping, cleaning and running errands. At night she would work the streets. One day the man she was cleaning for stopped her and said good morning. When she replied pleasantly he said “oh – it’s nice to see you – I can distinctly tell the difference between the three of you – I can see in your eyes who you are today”. Like many sexual abuse victims Cynthia began to take on different personalities as an escape from the pain.
At one point, Cynthia freed herself from the DTES and returned home to see her grandmother. Cynthia was addicted and down to 80 pounds. When she returned home, she slept for days withdrawing from the T’s and R’s. Her grandmother wanted to know why she was sleeping so much, and then all of a sudden eating so much. She told her grandmother everything. Her grandmother didn’t judge – instead it brought them even closer. Cynthia would sit for hours at the big window in her grandma’s front room watching an eagle. One day her grandmother sat beside her…
“Cindy I want you to make me a promise”
“No Cindy – I need you to promise first”
“Promise me first and then I can tell you”
“Ok grandma – I promise”
“When I am gone, I don’t want you to ever come back here”
“Ok grandma I promise”
And so Cynthia left – and again returned to the DTES of Vancouver. Torn between two lives – a Nation with family history yet plagued by alcoholism or her sister in Vancouver and the cycle of addiction.
For 29 years, Cynthia has survived the streets of the Downtown Eastside. She has survived prostitution, heroin, cocaine, T’s and R’s. Yet somehow she has overcome most her battles. Five years ago she successfully completed re-hab. She chooses to stay in the neighbourhood she knows, perhaps because it is home, perhaps because she is drawn to stay. In Cynthia’s words “This street grabs ahold of you – the demon is the rock(cocaine)”. Yet Cynthia has beat most of her battles and now feels compelled to help others.
Just last month, at age 55, Cynthia went back to school. She attends 3 days a week learning basic computer skills and eventually Aboriginal law. Each day she walks Hastings Street while reciting positive affirmations in her mind. She stops to give hugs to so many who need it. Last year, as she walked the street of her neighbourhood a man from a church group stopped her to talk. He could tell she was a part of the neighbourhood but that she was clean. He asked her why she stayed. Cynthia told him she didn’t know. He then said “I can see why you are here – you have something important to do here. People will listen to you. You have a story to tell.” As she told us this story, Cynthia beamed with pride as she has believed this to be true since that day and now she is starting to see it happen. Her poem “Goodbye Letter to Myself” was recently published in a local magazine. She has been interviewed on TV and recently she took it upon herself to speak to a group of Aboriginal youth visiting the DTES. I told her about my blog and asked if I could share her story. With pride she smiled “you don’t have to ask me twice”. As I told her more about Project HELLO I asked if she would ever be interested in joining me to present to youth or to educators. I shared with her that I have a similar goal, as I want to share our story to help others understand the DTES and understand how students can make a difference. I mentioned that I would be presenting the THESA conference in October and wondered if she would like to join me. With a smile as wide as a child racing towards a finish line Cynthia whole heartedly agreed saying today was meant to happen. She then asked me my astrological sign and smiled as if she already knew when she discovered we are both Leo. As we finished our lunch, she sat in contentment and offered this “we met for a reason – there is no such things as a coincidence.” I told her I couldn’t agree more.
I asked Cynthia two final questions. First, I asked what she would like others to understand about the DTES. Here’s what she had to share. “It’s not what people think. The people down here are real. They may be messed up, but what they say is real and true. Before you judge, try to walk a day in their shoes”.
I then asked Cynthia where she plans to be in five years. Despite her promise to her grandma, Cynthia feels compelled to help her band. First she will stay in Vancouver to finish course work and improve her employment skills and understanding of Aboriginal law. In time she will make her way back to Port Alberni. Her Nation, To-quaht has recently reached a treaty settlement with the government and they are beginning to develop their oceanfront land and create employment opportunities. Cynthia will use the funds she receives from the treaty for retirement and to set up an RESP for her grandson. Cynthia smiled with adult confidence and then with a second thought her eyes sparkled ands she said “or maybe I’ll follow through with my dream as a child and open up my flower shop”.
I can’t help but wonder if Cynthia’s flower shop already exists in a metaphorical way. In Canada’s darkest neighbourhood she is light. Her hugs, her stories and her courage to make a positive difference offer beauty and serenity just like a fresh cut bouquet of flowers.