In keeping with Christmas tradition, friends and I got together last weekend and headed downtown to celebrate the season. The temperature was near freezing, so we bundled up in toques, scarves and gloves and braved the crisp air, full of anticipation for a great winter day. As we arrived to one of my favourite spots in Vancouver, it seemed others had the same idea. School buses and tour buses lined the streets, parking was scarce, and children hollered with joy as their parents followed with cameras flashing and video cameras rolling. The main attractions grew such crowds that pedestrians spilled out into the streets. But here’s the thing. I wasn’t at a popular holiday venue. I was standing at the corner of Main and Hastings on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.
We live in a remarkable city, overflowing with caring compassionate people who want to make a difference at Christmas. We often think of those with less than us, and on first thought, it seems like a great idea to head to Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood and offer food and clothing. And I know from first hand conversations that the residents of this neighbourhood do appreciate items they receive. In no way to I want to criticize the good intention of Vancouverites. However I feel a bit compelled to offer some advice on how to help. This Christmas marks our fifth year working in the Downtown Eastside helping the homeless send cards to family or friends they have lost touch with. Throughout this journey, I have learned a few things about the community that I hope to share. If you would like to help the residents of the Downtown Eastside, I applaud you. It is a neighbourhood rich in story, hardship and heartbreak. It is also a neighbourhood full of courage, resiliency and glimmers of hope. If you choose to visit, with good intention, please take the following tips into consideration:
1. Give appropriate gifts using the same logic you use when you gift the ones you love. Your mother is probably not looking for a size XL man’s jacket. Your brother is not likely searching for a pink polk-a-dotted lady’s scarf. It is very common to collect warm clothing and distribute it on Hastings Street. However, if the gift is not suitable, it will likely be sold. Take the time to pull a fitting item out of the bag and make eye contact when you offer it to the person on the street. They are much more likely to use it when it is suitable and received with love.
2. Take time. Take the time to give items out one by one. Last weekend I watched a group of do-gooders pull up in a bakery style truck. Rather than displaying their items or handing them out to suitable recipients, they stood in the truck bed and threw items in the air. As they did this, a crowd surrounded the truck. With each toss, the homeless scrambled with their arms in the air hoping to catch the item. It reminded me of a scene from the zoo where the trainer feeds the animals. Unfortunately the image is burned in my brain – and the only thing that makes it worse was the large video camera filming the episode to capture the act of kindness on film.
3. Respect the neighbourhood. Remember that you are a guest in another community. Respect the space. Don’t overcrowd the sidewalks. Do not take photos of anyone without first asking permission. Be polite. Be respectful. Make eye contact and say hello. Park on side streets rather than unloading buses on Hastings. Walk in groups of 4-6 rather than groups of 40. Treat the residents like you would want to be treated in your neighbourhood.
4. Use your judgement. The Downtown Eastside is a diverse neighbourhood – and not everyone on the street is homeless. Some are employees of the local businesses, others live in trendy lofts popping up in the area yet many are homeless or live in low income housing. For the most part, if you take the time, you can see the difference. Take time to see people before handing out goods. Unfortunately there is a new disturbing trend emerging as the streets clutter with donations. A few of the local merchants from Chinatown walk the streets with shopping buggies and gather as many items as they can to sell at their shops around the corner on Keefer Street. They will often ask for the full 12 packs of socks, or multiple quantities of what you are providing. Today, I witnessed this with my own eyes. As I tried to drop off toiletries at the women’s centre, a group of women from Chinatown came in with bags and literally stole dozens of boxes of toothpaste and shampoo and ran. The shelter employees explained this is increasingly common. Some run to their shops to resell the product, while others use a storage locker in the community to store their collections. As San Francisco recently coined a similar problem – there seems to be a battle between the needy and the greedy. If they appear well dressed, well fed, and they are looking for items to re-sell, perhaps you may want to identify someone with greater need.
5. Consider Another Time of Year. Christmas is a wonderful time to give, and there are many ways to help in our community. However, if you would like to help the homeless by distributing food, blankets or clothing, I would suggests you choose November, January of February instead. It is just as cold, and the residents do not receive as much during these months.
6.Volunteer Your Time. Many shelters or associations need volunteers to help serve meals or prepare dinners. Contact associations directly to see how you can help.
7. Find out what people need. Remember the last time you received a gift you would never use? It was most likely given to you by someone with good intention. The same thing happens on the DTES. For example, group after group provide hot chocolate or coffee assuming people are cold and would love this. What I often hear is that they are dehydrated and would love to have clean drinking water. Take the time to ask people what they need but don’t usually receive. When I have asked this question I have received the following suggestions: bananas, meat or any type of protein, water and towels. However, many have told me that what they really crave but seldom receive is the simple art of conversation. Engage in heartfelt dialogue. Be sincere. From one human to another, wish them a very Merry Christmas.
Thank you for making a difference. Happy Holidays!