Walking Through Vancouver

Join me as we go for a walk. The walk I take every morning from my house to work.

We start in Strathcona. Historically the first suburb of Vancouver. Colourful, century-old houses stand tall on every block. Each house uniquely painted. Some red, some green. Blue, yellow, purple. The streets are awash with colour, cherry blossom trees standing tall on each corner. They hang over the paths like pink clouds in the sky. The air smells fresh, the sound of children sliding along with the breeze. When the sun shines, it seems to shine a little brighter here.

Next Chinatown.

Old Chinese families open the shutters of their shops. Some placing red lanterns outside their doorways, some assembling tables covered with exotic delicacies. The smell of spices fills the air. My nose tingles with pleasure.

But soon, we find ourselves there. In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The change isn’t gradual – it’s sudden. One moment an old Chinese shopkeeper is smiling at us, welcoming us to her store. The next moment a dishevelled man with dirty clothes and long greasy hair whispers in our ear “Marijuana? Cocaine?”

As we plunge deeper, those cherry blossoms seem so far away. The sky grows darker, the streets dirtier. Barely a thing is living here. No trees. No plants. No people. These people aren’t living, they’re surviving, some barely existing. On a street corner, a man stands twitching, possessions at his feet waiting to be sold – for food, somewhere to sleep, more often than not drugs.

Dozens of sweaty bodies push together to form a line, waiting for a small cup of soup and a stale bread roll. Just another day in the endless struggle. A routine so far from my own:

Wake up. Survive.

Passing by alleys, I see people huddled in doorways, some selling drugs, some buying. Some using. In one alley, a man lies on the floor, screaming wildly into the air, two police officers stand over him, trying to calm him down. He mumbles at them, incomprehensible. His face is an old weathered ball of flesh, distorted by a long grey beard.

In the alley mouth, a man with a torn sweater and spit running down his cheek shakes an empty cup. He speaks so low that he’s barely audible, his old voice worn and defeated. I don’t hear his words, but I don’t need to. I know what he wants. My reply is a shake of the head and an apology, by this point an automatic reflex, my answer to all of the pan-handlers. Shake and apologise. Shake and apologise. Like I’m sorry.

But I’m not sorry, not really.

As I walk away the man mutters under his breath “fucking asshole.” I walk a little faster.

When I reach the end of the street I turn back to glance at the man, only to find myself walking into another. He wears a business suit and talks into his iPhone. He glares at me, continuing his own walk, muttering those same words “fucking asshole.”

Just as suddenly as we found ourselves in the Downtown Eastside, we have escaped. Skyscrapers shoot upwards piercing the clouds. Men and women hurry along, talking into their phones, sipping their Starbucks coffees, eating their croissants. Everybody has a place to be, some cubicle, on some floor, in some building. They jump off their buses and trains, scurrying like ants towards their buildings. More routines. More lives. So different from those lives a few streets away.

Eventually, I find myself in my own cubicle, on my own floor.  I wish I could say my journey ends there, but it doesn’t. I sit, staring out of my window at the street below where another man, almost dressed in rags, holds a cup. He waves it at the business people passing by. Some shake their heads. Most ignore him as though he’s invisible. Nobody gives him any money.

For ten minutes he waves his cup. With each passing minute, the feeling in the pit of my stomach grows. The man gives up, leaves. But the feeling doesn’t leave with him. It continues to grow. It comes back stronger every time I walk to work.

This is a feeling so complex that I struggle to describe it. Some emotions are easy to explain, we can justify them with some real-world evidence, or a little psychological analysis, but this emotion is so intricate that no matter how much I search myself for an answer to its riddles, I can never really conclude anything.

The feeling is a cocktail of guilt, anger, hopelessness, compassion, fear, pity, apathy, frustration and confusion. A mixture of emotions for the mixture of thoughts that pass through my head when I’m honest with myself. When I’m really being honest.

Let me start to be honest:

I’ve also started to ignore the homeless.

It’s all I can do to keep myself sane. I see people on the streets desperate for help and I turn the other way. I’ve seen teenage girls turning tricks and pretended they didn’t exist. I’ve seen half-starving men begging for help and I’ve not even sighed. Just walked on by. Shaking my head, apologising.

Yet, no. I’m not being honest. Not at all. Ignoring these people isn’t even the start of it. I’ve not only started to ignore the homeless but I’ve started to think of them as…well…not human.

The world of the homeless is so far from my own, that there’s no human connection for me to make. I can’t (or wont) empathise with the homeless at all. Not because I’m some massive sociopath, but simply because that’s the easiest way I’ve found of dealing with this strange situation which I can’t understand. I’ve fooled myself into thinking there is no connection between their world and mine. That we aren’t just different people, but a different species. I’m in denial. These people aren’t people, so why should it matter if they suffer to me?

One day as I was walking home, an old Japanese man tried to stop me, I just continued to walk, but he called “EXCUSE ME!” so loudly that I finally had to stop in my tracks. The old man looked up at me and politely asked the way to the train station.

Although the whole exchange only took a matter of seconds, it showed me how mistrustful I had become of people on the street. All people. I’ve become prejudice. Judging people not on who they actually are, but on how they look, or how they act.

Oh. I want to be honest. With myself and with you. I am not a perfect person, nobody is, but I’ve always felt that I was somehow good inside. I always thought that if I saw somebody collapse on the street that I would stop to help, but I’m starting to think that isn’t true. I’m instead starting to think I’m the type of person that would keep walking, pretending they saw nothing and fighting back the remorse with the words “somebody else will take care of it.”

Those words are the words that most people in Vancouver must use to sleep at night. “Somebody else will take care of it.” One person ignoring the homeless isn’t a problem, but the majority of the city ignoring it – hoping that something will magically sort it out? Pretending there is no problem. That’s a problem. It scares me shitless. Living in a society where everybody is completely in denial about what is around them.

Still. I try to be honest. Because I feel like honesty is the one thing that can save me. Admitting my faults is the first step towards slowly changing things for the better. Maybe all we need to do is change a little. But I feel that admitting I’m wrong is the smallest step, and every step afterwards is harder, and no matter how many steps I take it won’t matter, because no matter how much I change, the world won’t change with me.

There’s a hopelessness I feel, knowing I can do almost nothing about this situation. One less person ignoring the problem means zip if everybody else in the world is pretending there is no problem.

People find it so hard to admit they’re wrong. Why can’t we all just say: Yeah, we’ve fucked up, there are people in our city, our community that need our help and we’re turning a blind eye and it’s time to change that.

Maybe it just takes too much courage, to stand up and admit to yourself that you’re not as good a person as you’d like to believe. Maybe it’s just too easy to live in denial, to stay at home in your nice warm house and think “yeah, I donated a little to charity this year, they’ll sort it out…I’m doing my bit.” But all the money in the world can’t solve a problem that’s being ignored.

My dad has a saying he always uses. When it’s especially cold outside he’ll shiver and say “I’d hate to be homeless tonight.” At no point in saying this does he actually consider the words. The implication –  that there’s another human being out there on the streets possibly freezing to death. Instead, it’s just a thing he says, never really caring to ponder the full meaning. We all do it.

I feel like I might be coming off as high and mighty. But that’s not my motive. I don’t know what my motive is. When I write, and when I think, I try to come up with some reasonable conclusion. I try to find out why things are as they are. I try to understand.

This time though, I can never understand. No matter how much I search. Why we do what we do. Why we are what we are.

I used to think that people who are homeless just made a wrong decision at some point. That I could so easily have made the same decision, that I could have ended up in their shoes. I used to think that it was nobody’s fault, that some people just fall through the cracks and we can’t pull them back out again.

But that’s not it. Not it at all. I want to be honest. Those people fall, and they scream. They cry for help and we hear their calls. Yet we ignore them. And we won’t pull them back out again.

No matter how loud they scream. We won’t pull them back out again.

We just shake our heads and apologise.

Photo is Cherry Blossom by kiuko on Flickr.

22 thoughts on “Walking Through Vancouver

  1. I can relate to your complex cocktail of emotions! I’d be interested to hear whether you’ve had similar observations before you came to Canda, Dan?

    1. I may have fleetingly made similar observations before I moved here, but until I came to Canada I wasn’t really that affected. Where I come from in England (Newcastle) there are barely any homeless people, you could count the amount on one hand. So to coming to Vancouver where there are dozens (if not hundreds) of homeless people and a lots of noticeable poverty…well…it’s been a huge shock to me…

      1. Wow! What a difference! I’ve asked as I had very similar experiences. Yet, I don’t know what, how or when I will do anything about it. I’d be so interested in hearing about whether anything eventuates from your experiences! Btw, I love your blog. Please keep writing.

  2. I so agree with you. A great post about a complicated and I fear unresolvable issue. I have felt the same as you in the same circumstances, and still do. I’ve felt compassion and given a few dollars and received thanks but I know that won’t solve the person’s problems. I’ve been lied to. I’ve had people call me names and threaten me when I haven’t given money, and I’ve also been told have a nice day anyway. I’ve stopped & had a chat with a “busker”, given a few coins, and received a smile & thanks, and sometimes not. The disenfranchised are people just like other people, good, bad and sometimes both.

    1. There’s a good documentary (made 10+ years ago) about the homeless in Vancouver. It follows a group of policemen as they interact with the drug addicts on the street. One of the drug addicts featured in the film is a kind woman called Nicola, who has a great sense of humour. The film was quite eye opening for me to watch.

      Anyway, a few days after watching the documentary, I was walking along, and there she was on the street corner asking for spare change. I felt sick to my stomach because she’s been on the street for so long – just makes everything seem so hopeless to me.

  3. Perfect description of Downtown! And I agree with everything you say about the homeless people. I remember walking down East Side when I was eight and I felt really sad. And a little scared, but I think I’d be scared now! Great post!

  4. Hey Dan, your writing is so engaging and this time provoking. Living in London on and off for 12 years, I’ve battled with these same swishing, swirling emotions. I’m not doing anything to help at the moment (I’m in Australia, but that’s no real excuse, there are homeless here in Byron Bay too), but for the last 3 winters I helped out at the Hackney Winter Night Shelter. It was pretty eye-opening. And way out of my comfort zone. It made a very small difference, but you have to think that your small difference would be a big difference if the others making beds and playing cards with these guys (who we called guests) didn’t make their small difference too. Also, have you heard of the Bystander Effect? Scary. Glad you like the start of your walk though!

    1. Yes, I’d liken what I wrote almost to a giant Bystander Effect. I find it strange, but I can also understand it. Ignoring the problem is so easy and to constantly focus on the problem – as I’ve been doing recently – can be really draining. I guess it’s just a way of coping, in a way. But also when everybody is treating the homeless one way, it’s hard to get out of going along with the crowd!

      Thanks for the comment. Glad you managed to take the further step and volunteer!

  5. Yeah, in my city they campaigned for people to give their ‘handouts’ to a charity box, not the homeless. It reduced the quantity of homeless cos they moved to other cities! Complex problem that needs tackling at the roots with all the interrelated issues such as drugs, mental health and shortages of affordable housing.

    1. Yeah, it’s very complex, which I guess is what makes it such a hard problem to tackle, there is no simple solution!

      Thanks for the comment.

  6. I am being brutally frank here with two points:

    1). People who continually claim they want to be honest, usually aren’t.

    2). Change comes one step, one person at a time, and if not you, who?

    None of us individually are likely to change the world, but we can change the life of one person. Think about it…

    1. You’re right. I think I’m being honest in some way with myself though, by thinking about my role and questioning my attitudes etc! Although maybe I just think I’m being honest when I’m not. Maybe the phrase I should have used was “let me be frank” like you have used.

      Thanks for the comment. I hope to look into doing something to help out and make some type of difference!

      1. Next time you are out for a walk, ask a homeless person if you can buy him a burger at McDonald’s. Thats how easy it is to start.

        Thanks for understanding…

  7. Yes, life is like that. You can’t change the world. You have your life to live. You donated your bit to charity. If you ensure that you do not yourself fall into the trap it is enough service to the society. And if you can do more, you are an angel.

  8. Dear Dan,
    Thank your for writing on this subject. I have a mentally ill nephew who is always one step from being homeless. If it wasn’t for my family he would be homeless. Most the people on the street have some sort of mental illness – no one who is healthy would choose to live on the street. And once they slip through the crack – their families loose track and their mental illness spirals. And the truth is, every family has some member who is mentally ill to some degree. This is a disease that is hidden because of the shame involved.
    Sometimes we think being honest is about admitting our faults, but this is an american concept. In Asian countries it is also possible to be honest about one’s good qualities. It isn’t seen as boasting, but as reinforcing goodness. We all have good merit that we accumulate. Next time you walk by a homeless person you can simply (in your heart) dedicate your accumulated merit to them, and in doing so you will both benefit.
    Robin Johnson

    1. I think modesty is definitely a problem in the modern age. We’re all brought up to think it’s a bad thing to think positively of our achievements, which just leads us to focusing on our flaws.

      I agree, from now on I’m going to think more positively about the homeless and treat them as I would like to be treated.

      Thanks for the comment, Robin.

  9. I don’t know if you fully grasp the situation of people living in the downtown east side. I urge you to schedule a tour at insite (they cover the history of the neighbourhood, social justice, harm reduction) and participate within the community. No person in the DTES will go homeless or without food. There are plenty of services available and meals being served. DTES has possibly the most concentrated area of services within the city. People who sleep on the street do so because they are not accessing shelters or rooming services offered to them. When people receive social assistance it covers rent but not much all, if one chooses to work for other expenses it can nullify their social assistance. Boredom is a huge issue, so is getting the extra cash for food, drugs, recreation, etc. Men drug deal, steal, or prostitute; women prostitute or drug deal. Also know that most people who live in the DTES aren’t there because of poor decisions or bad luck. The vast majority have a history of trauma/abuse and or mental illness both which tie into addictions. There are complex issues which is why suggestions like “just get a job” or “just go to rehab” doesn’t work. Then tie in chronic conditions like Hep C or HIV. Working in the DTES has made me learn the community is made of the friendliest people in the city with the greatest sense of humour and sense of community I have EVER experienced. If you get to know some of the names to the faces your feelings will change.

    1. I don’t fully grasp the situation at all, because all I have to go on at the moment is what I’ve read, what I see etc. As somebody else pointed out, the whole thing is so complex that I think I’ll never truly have an entire grasp of it. I’m truly thankful to you for sharing your view and giving me some more perspective. I’ve just had a look for Insite tours and am not really finding any info?

  10. I really admire you for writing this post Dan, as it’s such a complex and controversial subject that can often be a source of conflicting opinions (even within our own minds!). I struggle with giving money/food to a homeless person because I think about all the people I’m not helping. I know I can never offer something to everyone, so I feel guilty by ‘choosing’ one over another and decide that it’s ‘no to everyone’. But then I still feel guilty for not helping anyone. Making a difference to one person at a time is something I’d love to be able to do, I just need to get over my own guilt/other feelings first!

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