I hit the streets twice last week, once before New Year’s Day and once after. The first time I had a helpful driver and was graced with unexpected good weather, which was miraculous considering the rain storms last month. I was able to give away two boxes of bread and sandwiches generously donated by my market sponsor and did so around East Hastings near Potters Place Mission. As always, the sweet breads and sandwiches were the most popular and were gone within seconds, while the wholesome ones were less well received due to their grainy/hard texture. I felt cheerful as it was the holidays, and people were receptive and enthusiastic. A young man standing by a parking meter saw us and waited for us to return to the car to thank us for what we were doing. It was hard not to smile, especially after exchanging so many holiday wishes, and my driver noticed how giggly I was for the rest of the night.
The second time was right after New Year’s, and I decided to roam the areas close to the affluent neighborhoods. A girl from my bakery sponsor told me that she recently did something similar by giving out a few bags of leftover sweet tarts. She said it made her feel really “fuzzy inside” to see that a man took a bag not for himself, but to pass it out to his friends. I noticed that like her, there are signs that people are becoming more willing to give. Perhaps it was the holiday spirits at work 🙂
I made simple jam & honey sandwiches to pass out, but noticed that many were more cold than hungry. For example, from what a group of youth outside the clubs on Granville and others told me, they were more troubled by the weather in the past few months. I have a friend who occasionally volunteers for a clothing drive down at Hastings, and we have been planning to combine our efforts later this month.
I thought it was going to be a rather uneventful night when I noticed a jarring sight right on Burrard: A person on the sidewalk had their face down and did not move at all even when I approached. At first I thought the person may simply be resting, but when I returned to the same spot later that night I noticed they remained in the same position. It was close to freezing point that night, and even in my winter jacket and blood circulating from walking I felt numb, so I could not imagine the pain that person must be in from staying in such an awkward position for so long in the cold. I remembered a woman who used to occupy the same spot told me that when she was sleeping, it was alright to leave her alone and not check on her, so I simply left the sandwiches on the bedding.
A couple of blocks down from this person, I talked to a man with a Scottish(?) accent holding a sign telling that he has HIV. I had nothing to pass out anymore, so just simply wanted to point him out to some resources downtown. However, he told me that the very place I directed him to was “homophobic”, which was saddening to hear, as I always had good impressions of the organization when I volunteered there. I think it must have been the expression I had on my face, but he kept reassuring me that I did not have to do anything for him nor for anybody else. He told me that many people do have the capacity to give (i.e., “they carry plastics”) and are willing to be charitable, but there are also many who do not. For now, he was fine where he was and insisted that he did not need anything from me. He allowed only for me to give him holiday wishes.
Unlike the first night, I went home with a heavy heart drained of most of my holiday cheer.
Talking to the man with HIV left me feel unsettled; I chewed over his words, his tone, and his expression for the entire night and felt apologetic for what must have been perceived as “pity” to him. I was confused by what kind of attitude I should hold towards people less privileged and became troubled by many questions, most of which centred around the possibility of offending the very people I try to help. Pity? Sympathy? Do I even have the right to help? I wonder if that is what made some of them who accepted my “charity” before avoid eye contact when I later walk down the same streets, even when I was not passing out food. Some regulars who recognize me have come to expect me, while there are others who blatantly avoided me despite the last time I saw them they were overwhelmingly receptive. I have learned to politely respect their boundaries and to be more discreet about approaching them with offerings of food or other aid but talking to the man last week stirred up the heavy feelings again.
Amidst my rumination, it also suddenly struck me that the person on Burrard may have had hypothermia. It was a horrible realization for me, and for the first time I felt scared about the experience. Notwithstanding my personal, professional/academic experiences, I had witnessed many heartbreaking scenes over the past year through this work; however, it was the first time I saw someone possibly dying or already dead in a public place. I was not afraid of the more impoverished and supposedly more “dangerous” neighborhoods in downtown Vancouver, and I was certainly not new to death (unfortunately), but witnessing a potential one happening out of desperate situations right before me was frightening. Due to the night scenes people often can be found lying on the downtown streets drunk, but this one was due to the cold. I regretted not having the courage to check on the person more closely and felt deeply ashamed of my cowardice and ineffectiveness. Each time I hit the streets was a somber experience, but I wonder if perhaps I am still too naive to the human conditions. I want to be stronger and to effect more changes – I think that will be part of my New Year’s resolution for this little movement I started.