For the past four months, I lived in Vancouver, BC. I was in training for a customer service representative role with a company, but I didn't succeed in attaining a position. However, the lessons I learned both in class and on the streets of the city were invaluable.
I left from Salmon Arm with a heavy heart and a single change of clothes, after I had learned a friend had disappeared, which was a startling event following on the heels of a funeral for another friend. I just wanted to get away from my home, but due to my depression, I'd made an impulsive decision that had me living in the gutter and in shelters on East Hastings Street upon arriving there. Those times were difficult. I can remember a constant feeling of insecurity and helplessness. My possessions, too, were always on my mind, as I only had a single bag, and seemingly no place to store it during the day were I to try to improve my lot. Anything left on its own in Skid Row is picked up and either claimed or sold; this rule may apply even to human lives.
I had a companion to help me through those first few weeks, though: a cousin, who'd been homeless for about four months prior to my arrival. His company, then, helped me more than I've actually given him credit for. The times were difficult, but I continued living as best as anyone can without a home, job, or even a few extra change of clothes. Food was somewhat available, so I never really worried too much over it, but missing out on a meal was always tough. Having someone to share a meal with, or an empty stomach through a day or two, though, made it bearable.
I noticed, as I passed through the days, which blended more and more together, that I spent much of my time standing in food lines. Getting food is almost a full-time job when you're homeless. Food is available for the vulnerable, but it's limited in supply. Day to day, you have little idea of how many people will actually show up for the meals, so it was best to get there early by at least an hour or two. Thousands were fed, daily, for the first couple weeks I was living there, but this was cut down by half, due to the shelter running out of funding too quickly, which created even more competition to get even one meal during the day.
I began recognizing the same faces as I attended more and more meals, but they were a minority among a sea of faces. More than individuals, though, what I really saw to be the same among all these disparate and different people were expressions: anger, fear, hurt, resignation, weariness, hopelessness, and desperation. Above all these feelings, though, was solitude. You could be among hundreds of hungry homeless people, sharing the exact same meal, but you'd still be on your own, as people really didn't interact. You quietly and quickly ate your meal, and you left the food shelter in an orderly manner. That was really the extent of the camaraderie of the homeless. I made some food line buddies, but it was a rare event. We really didn't hang together after the meal, either. We always had separate plans, which were usually what food shelter to visit next, or where we were gonna camp out for the night, whether in a shelter or in the gutter.
All people inhabit their own worlds, really. I live in poverty, but there are perspectives of this lifestyle I can't experience, because of how I am. I was witness to the recreational drug use and street pharmaceutical business of East Hastings Street, but was never a participant. I simply didn't hang out with those people. It wasn't an interest of mine. But I won't deny I wasn't a little tempted by the idea of selling drugs for profit, as I was (and still am) always broke. However, the stories of those formerly involved was enough to keep me at bay: tales of fights, stabbings, and murders. It ain't my kind of life.
What could I do to earn a living, though? Honestly, I couldn't find an answer there, which is why I'm writing this from Salmon Arm, which is my hometown.In Vancouver, I trained, and applied for dozens and dozens of jobs, but honestly, I'm a liability. I have an illness: Clinical Depression. I get somewhat ahead in employment, and then an event in my life causes me to break down. I've lost jobs, and have left jobs. If any company takes a risk on me, I'd be the most grateful man on Earth, for certain. But I truthfully don't know how I'll fare, anymore.
When sitting in the gutter, wondering what to do, I had time to think and reflect. Poverty is a big business; churches receive tens of millions of dollars from donations to help alleviate the suffering of the poor, but how much do these churches actually use to combat poverty? There are dozens of 'hotels' all over the downtown, which are called Single Residential Occupencies (SRO's), that provide low-income housing; some are good, and some are slummy; some are for profit, and some are non-profit. There are also dozens of employment services out there, too, that provide job-seekers advise and training, and other such necessary services, but... as I participated in my own training, I couldn't help reflecting that all this is a bit of a scam set-up by all these listed sorts of agencies (churches, SRO's, and job search agencies) to sell to the government for a return in either tax breaks or financial grants. That someone else is getting a pay cheque precisely because I'm a jobless loser one mistake away from living in the gutters, again.
Do our representatives in the government believe all this is actually helping to reduce poverty? In the end, is poverty actually on the retreat because I, a fully literate man, was highly graded on my ability to read and fill-in a work-place document? That because I had a somewhat safe bed to sleep in some nights when I was homeless that I would again be a fully contributing member of society once I had my feet back on the ground? That sleeping in a hotel, at long last, was an answer to getting me off the street, permanently?
I'm currently living on income assistance, but it's honestly a pittance of an amount to live on. And I can't find a job, despite my great training. BC's income assistance program is a joke. It doesn't cover a damn thing. It's food or bills. Depts or a bus pass. And the process for getting onto it is so very flawed, there are probaby a number of people who applied and were denied, and became homeless as a result of this barrier.
If I were to compare poverty in Canada to poverty in Mexico, it wouldn't even be close. It'd definitely be more difficult to survive down south. However, when you think about it, Canada is a very wealthy country, therefore, poverty doesn't need to exist here!
All these charities, programs, and services solve very little. I could very well be trapped in this life style till my final days, because these sorts of programs don't tackle what's keeping me trapped in poverty! The lack of access to meaningful employment! I also don't have access to any psychiatrists, which could go a long ways to helping me get my illness under control. And the other thousands of other poor buggers on East Hastings Street face the very same problems, which is no access to decently paid jobs, and little access to the proper sort of doctors for treating their own illnesses.
How much are mental illnesses belaboring the residents of the downtown eastside? If there were simply more doctors who could offer longer-term treatments for treating addictions and other such issues, how much greater a difference could that make in these lives? It's absolutely frustrating to think about how all these lives are so very neglected by our governments. Skid Row is the drain pipe for all that our society considers waste and garbage. Perhaps if it was simply ignored, it might go away on its own, they must conclude. Or the rain will wash it away, they must believe. But the thing is, waste and garbage clings. One thing I noticed about the denizens of Skid Row is that they're survivors, and they're hanging on to dear life despite the indignity and disdain they have to suffer through, daily.
One guy might be licking the pavement, driven completely insane by his addiction to meth, but he's still alive. One woman might be wearing her bra outside of her shirt, again, but she's still smiling, greeting her crack dealer making a deal for some more rock. But these two people have their reasons for submerging their minds in drug-riddled fantasies. The man, when he was just a boy, was beaten mercilessly by the priest in resential school, every day, until he was convinced to run away with his cousins in the dead of night during winter. He was left behind when they reached a field, and so turned back to the school. The next day, the other boys were found, frozen to death halfway through the field. The woman, she was raped as a young girl, and then when a young woman found a man to love who beat her everyday. She eventually left him, taking her three kids, but they were stolen away from her by the government. There are tens of thousands more stories such as that in Skid Row.
I'm back in Salmon Arm, now, away from the restless and sleepless street called Hastings, but it occupies my mind, constantly. How can the people be saved? What can we do? And I think, how arrogant, when it gets right down to it, to be thinking like that. People will destroy themselves, true, but they will also save themselves when they are ready. We gotta give them the chance, though. We can't spit on 'em, and convince 'em it's raining! We gotta put our hand where they can be reached! And when they reach out, we gotta take a firm grasp on them so they don't fall down again. Hastings Street needs a bailout the size of what the banks got! In the end, that's what can help them. Throw money at the problem!
Cause otherwise, the only other way to ease our minds concerning the people of East Hastings Street is to ignore them. Step over them, and pretend they don't exist.
But, in the back of your mind, you'll know.