Judging People We Don’t Know: How Stories Can Change Perceptions

Judging People We Don’t Know: How Stories Can Change Perceptions

We often judge people we don’t know.  Without knowing their stories, we allow our stereotypes or fears to influence our judgement.

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of presenting at the Social Justice Conference in Maple Ridge.  I had 90 minutes to spend with teens from Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, ranging in age from 13-18. Continue reading

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Hope is Just a Glimmer for Homeless Man

Hope is Just a Glimmer for Homeless Man

photo[3]Meet my newest friend Marty.  This month, my principal Sean Nosek and I took him for lunch to empower him with the opportunity to tell his story.  Please take a second to read, and help us in the search for his brother – a teacher in Alberta.  Here’s the full  story:

http://beyondhello.org/2014/04/21/hope-is-just-a-glimmer-for-homeless-man/

How You Can Help The Homeless: 7 Holiday Tips

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!

Beyond HELLO: A Sunday with Purpose

If you drive down East Hastings Street on an ordinary day, you can look out your car window and see the faces of people who have lost their purpose: lost souls, who have traded away hope in exchange for darkness.   Today was different.  East Hastings was alive, and purpose was abundant.  As we arrived just after 12:30 PM, the streets were flooded with activity.  Church groups handed out meals, the local bottle depot managed the crowds awaiting payment, movie extra’s roamed the streets as a back drop for a new film and the  Downtown Eastside Sunday Street Market was in full swing.  It seemed everyone had a purpose, or at least something to occupy their time.

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I too had a purpose, yet today was different than previous months.  Today my plan was to make not one, but two new friends.  You see, usually I travel to the Downtown Eastside with family, friends or students and invite residents of the Downtown Eastside community to participate in Project HELLO or Beyond HELLO.  I then share the stories through my blog.  Last month, a lady named Donna contacted me after reading my blog post through a link a mutual friend had shared.  She asked if I would go ‘Beyond HELLO’.  She would pay for lunch, in exchange for the opportunity to have conversation – with each other – and hopefully with someone living in the Downtown Eastside.  I agreed.

As Donna and I drove, we went ‘Beyond HELLO’.  We talked about family, health, spirituality, intuition and our life experiences.  The conversation went well beyond the surface level conversations that usually occur when you first meet someone.  Instead we spoke about connections that exist between all people and the opportunities we have to act in ways of significance.  We spoke of the importance of listening to our inner voices, and taking time to Be.  By the time we reached the Downtown Eastside, we had formed a connection based on mutual respect and understanding.

As we searched for a parking spot, I spotted Sandra Bonneau, the woman who I believe is the heart of the Downtown Eastside.  She has survived the streets for over 20 years, has struggled with addiction, abuse and health complications yet her spirit shines.  Like always, she greeted me with her toothless smile and sparkling eyes.  She was excited to hear that the group of high school students who found her daughter for her five years ago would all be in town for Christmas.  I let her know that they would be back from university and wanted to wish her a happy birthday on December 22nd.  We agreed to meet up and I offered to bring a birthday cake.  I asked if there was anything she needed as a birthday gift.  She replied saying ‘just your presence’.   I smiled and offered her lunch.  She smiled back, knowing others needed our offer more than she did, so she politely declined and we parted ways.

We wandered through the street market, marvelling at the collection of stolen goods being sold in an open market place.  We considered offering lunch to some of the men who passed by with their life’s belongings in  shopping carts – but we didn’t – as we both knew they would refuse.  Leaving their carts unattended would be too substantial a risk in this neighbourhood.  We wandered back up Hastings and offered lunch to a few others who looked like they could use a meal.  Each refused. At one point Donna wondered if perhaps today was just about the two of us going ‘Beyond HELLO’.  It felt as though it was.  We decided to stand at a busy corner on Hastings and let others approach us.  Being still in their neighbourhood seems to be a less invasive approach.  Within minutes we had a lady hoping to help me find Garth (Beyond HELLO – August) and another woman in a wheel chair who recognized me and wanted to let me know about her daughter and the special visit she had with her grandson.  To be honest, I didn’t recognize her.  Have we helped her before? I’m not sure.  She thought so, so I stopped and we had a nice chat.  As we began to wonder if anyone wanted lunch, a lady passed by approaching the crosswalk.  Her hair was tangled and slept on, her clothing reflected warmth more than style, and her eyes were guarded.  Our eyes met for a second, like she was scanning the neighbourhood to make sure it was safe.  She walked by, but then, turned back and looked at us over her shoulder.  I don’t remember who spoke first, but I know her eyes changed, and she looked at us with curiosity and perhaps trust.  We asked if she was hungry.  She said yes – in fact that’s why she was out from her BC Housing shelter.  She was hoping to find a warm meal.  Together the three of us walked towards the Save On Meats diner.

As we walked towards the diner, we walked like three friends.  Shelley introduced herself and made sure she learned our names quickly.  As we entered the diner, she commented on how nice it was – and mentioned it might be a nice spot to bring her boyfriend for his birthday on New Year’s Eve.

As we approached the counter – the waitress explained that we could take an order form and create our own breakfast meal, salad, sandwich or burger.  Shelley suggested we take the forms to the table to sit down together and then decide.  Not wanting to ask if she was literate, I read the menu choices out loud and together we discussed what we should eat.

Shelley thought about a sandwich – and referenced her need to be healthy – briefly reflecting on her time years ago when she worked as an aerobics instructor in Toronto.  She thought a sandwich would be nice – but when I started to ask her about the different bread options  or toppings you could see the decision was too overwhelming.  Between her addiction to crack, methadone use and recovery from being struck by a van last year, she struggles to stay with one thought for more than a minute at a time.  Through our conversation you could see her eyes literally fade in and out of awareness.  In some moments it looked as if she needed to sleep – in others she was alive, present and willing to share with us.  Perhaps because of the perplexity of the order form, or perhaps because the smell of burgers and fries surrounded us, Shelley changed her mind from the sandwich form and said she would rather have a burger and fries.  Donna agreed and ordered the same.  Shelley asked if I would have a burger too.  I explained that I needed to order a salad as I am 1/2 way through a 12 day cleanse with a friend at work therefore I cannot eat burgers or fries.  As the words left my mouth I recognized how shallow it seemed – here I was – explaining to a lady who searches the streets for food – why I am only eating certain foods to detoxify my body.  And yet I also felt it was human to share.  She smiled and I laughed and said “it’s crazy – the things women will do!”  She agreed and let me know she would put the ketchup and mustard on her burger herself.  She then winked and said that was one of her secrets for staying thin.

The waitress arrived with coffee.  Shelley’s cup had an inch of space at the top for cream or sugar.  Shelley let the sugar pour.  Intentionally – enough that the cup started to overfill.  She mumbled about the cup being too full and stirred her new concoction – 3/4 coffee, 1/4 sugar.  As she tried to steady her shaking hand the coffee spilled.  Donna and I wiped it up as she drank – and eventually helped by pouring some out into a water glass.

Shelley shared her life story – growing up with a military police father – where she was never sure if she should get closer or further away.  She didn’t connect with her mom and ran away from home a couple times but was always welcome back by her dad.  Her mom decided to grow distant from her father while she decided to get closer.  When her dad died from cancer twenty five years ago she was devastated and turned to crack.  As a server in bars, she made her way across the  country eventually finding her way to the Downtown Eastside.  She fell in love but lost her partner to cancer as well.  Yet – despite the drug addiction and pain she continually referenced her mantra of staying positive and not looking back.  I asked what that was about – she answered with clarity.  For Shelley it was about god – and staying true to her faith.  She then turned to us with certainty and said – you need to remember you are not where you are at just because of him – promise me you will give yourself credit too.  We smiled.

Shelley ate her burger and fries with urgency. Between bites she would pause for a split second and ask what else we would like to know.  She had questions about her current relationship and wanted our advice.  Her boyfriend wants her to move in with her – and has even discussed marriage – but something is holding her back.  When I asked if he was the one she laughed.  Donna asked if he was the one for now – and she smiled saying he was a good man who really loved her.  She talked about her own behaviours, commenting that many would leave – but he chooses to stay.  She then took time to ask us if we were married and how me met our spouses.  Fading in and out of conversation, Shelley seemed to be hit with a burst of consciousness – and she raised her coffee cup in the air and offered a toast “to happiness, Christmas, and meeting new people.”  Together we clanked our glasses, smiled and enjoyed each others company.

I ended with a usual question, asking Shelley what she wanted others to know about the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. She answered with this: “It’s changing. And what it’s missing is a place to talk.  A place to clear your head and talk through problems. A place to feel safe and have real conversations.”   We smiled knowing exactly what she was trying to say.

As Shelley stood up to leave, she turned back and asked each of us for a hug.  We then had a group photo and promised to send a copy in the mail.  Shelley left to meet up with her boyfriend, Donna and I drove home, all of us knowing we had just gone Beyond HELLO and experienced a Sunday with purpose.

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Beyond HELLO: Feeling Alive

Les

At 66 years old, Les has already defied the odds.  On the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, those who make it to the age of 40 are considered seniors and eligible for discount cards issued from Carnegie Centre.  Yet, as Les told us late this afternoon, he just doesn’t feel old.  With sparkling eyes and a youthful spirit, he feels alive.  Les has survived the dark days on East Hastings and has lived to tell about it.  He has learned some hard lessons in life, and paid the price, serving time behind bars in Maple Ridge just a few years ago for drug trafficking.  He doesn’t make excuses – he admits he was on the wrong path, and prison was what he needed to make the choice to never go back to old habits.  He lives without regret, and wouldn’t change his past, as it has shaped who he is today. With a toothless smile and laugh lines in all the right places, Les demonstrates an admirable sense of resilience.  Living in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood has not dampened his spirit.

 In month four of Beyond HELLO, Les joined my principal Sean Nosek and I for a late lunch today at the Lost and Found Café.  In exchange for a warm meal, Les agreed to let us share his story.  Les reflected on his life with appreciation for the good times, even finding the positive lessons that emerged from his time behind bars.

Les grew up in a Chinese immigrant family, attending local Vancouver schools – Strathcona, Britannia and Van Tech.  He was never really that good at school, and at the age of 18 he had only achieved a grade 8 education.  With a need for adventure and curious spirit, Les joined the army.  In his four years of service he traveled the world, serving our country.  His favourite adventures include the warm Mediterranean water in Cyprus and training days jumping from planes at the Army Airborne School in Alberta.

After four years of service, Les returned to BC and took a job in Prince George.  Initially he worked in the kitchen for Northwood Pulp and shortly after took a physical job in the mill.  He hated the manual labour of the mill and decided to explore his love of the kitchen.  Les reminisced about days when the ‘Keg & Cleaver’ and ‘Hindquarter’ were the top restaurants in town.  He worked his way up from kitchen help to 2nd cook and eventually head cook.  The hours were long, the lifestyle was draining and the split shifts consumed all of his time.  Facing exhaustion, he decided to make a change and venture to Toronto to live near his brother.  It was in Toronto that he found the balance he was looking for.  He fell in love and married his wife, and secured a job as a baker for Loblaws; a job he kept for over two decades.  Unlike most I have talked to, Les preferred to skim over the details of the triggers and turning points that sent him back to the DTES. Yet, unlike most, who live with the pain, Les appeared to be free from his past.  He let us know his marriage fell apart, his brother died, his parents both died and he turned to drug trafficking as his means for survival.  The streets of Vancouver became his home.  Unlike most whose eyes search for approval or understanding when telling of their past, Les is different.  He is matter of fact about the wrong turns in his life, and seems to have forgiven himself for the pain and mistakes in his life.  Perhaps this is why Les has survived to 66 in Canada’s roughest neighbourhood.  His lightness is perhaps his best survival skill.

Today Les lives month to month relying on his old age security cheque.  He receives $1400 / month to cover his rent, food and expenses.  He lives in modest, low income housing yet he takes pride in his home, where he has his own kitchen, his own television and room for his roommate, Smoky the cat.

Through our conversation, we took some time to tell Les a little about our lives.  When we mentioned we were high school administrators, he smiled back at us, saying “that’s ok”, with an understanding that many who have failed at school do not have the fondest memories of the principal’s office.  Les was surprised that we had driven from Maple Ridge to take someone for lunch.  I let him know a little about Beyond HELLO, sharing my goal of taking one person for lunch each month.  I explained my own view, that the neighborhood is plagued by unnecessary judgment and that each person on the streets has a story worth hearing.  He smiled in agreement.

When I asked Les what he would want others to know, he paused momentarily, and then explained how the neighbourhood works.  Everyone knows everyone.  He may not know all the names, but he knows the faces.  It is a community, yet everyone living on the streets has their own means for survival. In the words of Les, “everybody has their own thing – their own way to survive.” I suspect Les’s positive disposition may just be his strongest armor.  His smile spreads ear to ear as he lets us know that even the police walking the streets of Hastings like him now.  They know he is drug free and only sells cigarettes for extra income.

Knowing that Les knows the faces of the DTES, I decided to ask him if he knew some of the people who have shared their stories with me in the past.  We spoke of Cynthia, Garth, and Cindy.  While he didn’t know their names, he recognized Cynthia and Garth enough for us to have casual confirmation about their whereabouts.  Next, I asked him if he knew Sandra, otherwise known as ‘Little Momma’.  I described her in detail, as the first woman I had met on the DTES back in 2009.  I spoke of her slender build, her mobility struggles and her kind heart.  Within seconds, Les knew exactly who I was talking about and with excitement, as if he had big news to share, he blurted out rather loudly – “HEY – did you know she found her daughter!”  With equal excitement, and perhaps less humility I blurted back “I found her daughter!”  Sandra, and her daughter Samantha from Alberta, are the first two people we reconnected through Project HELLO in 2009. Our students were so moved by this mother daughter connection and the human need for family to find each other that they fundraised and paid for Samantha to fly to Vancouver for a reunion.  We drove Sandra to the airport to greet her daughter and arranged a full weekend including hotel accommodations, hair cuts, meals, etc.  The experience will always be one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.  It was the springboard for Project HELLO and the inspiration for my students and I to turn our one-day fieldtrip into a lifelong project.  To have someone living on the Downtown Eastside quote this story back to me almost four years later, someone whom had no idea that I had anything to do with the reunion in the first place, was magical.   In a simple second something changed.   Les knew he had made our day, just as much as we had made his.  We ended with handshakes, some photos and a commitment to stay in touch by saying hi next time we are in his neighbourhood.  After paying the bill we ventured back out to Hastings in hopes of touching base with Sandra.  With a genuine eagerness to help, Les called out behind us – “I hope you find her”.  The sound of his voice said more than his words.  In the time it took to eat a meal, Les had another significant moment in a life worth living. Another reason to smile, and feel very alive.

Beyond HELLO: Cynthia’s Flower Shop

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.

 

Month 3 of Beyond HELLO Vancouver – Cynthia’s Flower ShopIMG_1255

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.

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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”

“What grandma?”

“No Cindy – I need you to promise first”

“What?”

“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.