postal code” on this sleepy Wednesday morning. But as far as I can tell,
there is no sleepy quality about this
half-block of informal business and
wrangling. The illegal street market
bustles. It is loosely organized with
its own systems and hierarchies.
The odd middle-class customer
wanders from stall to stall. (Some
middle-class folks know that here,
you can get things for cheap. Just
don’t ask questions.)
We walk into the Downtown
Eastside Women’s Centre. There’s a
basket of free condoms at the welcome desk. Women mill about,
waiting for the afternoon meal.
And for Sutton, there’s the familiar
welcoming embrace of Chilli Bean,
a regular volunteer at the centre.
She’s a twinkling, maternal woman,
probably in her fifties, with a gap-toothed smile and long black hair.
There are no men at the women’s
centre, and I noticed earlier there
were virtually no women in the
lineup for lunch at the Salvation
Army’s drug and recovery centre just
half a block away. Gender segregation seems to be a necessity for
survival here. Perhaps there is safety
in homogeneity when the threat of
violence hangs in the air so palpably.
“We see a lot of new faces now
that springtime is coming. From
across Canada. And young ones
too,” Chilli Bean tells us. “It’s sad.”
I am impressed by Chilli’s warmth,
her care, her smile. “Chilli Bean is a
high-functioning drug user,” Sutton
tells me later. This is how it is – addiction and illness, mingled with the
most human of emotions and distinctly human of interactions.
“THERE WAS A GUY,” Karen Gies-
brecht confesses. “I thought he was
cute. So I came to volunteer.” Much
about Giesbrecht is casual and
understated, yet the adventure that
began 15 years ago – almost on a
whim, with one simple visit to a
Tuesday night shelter and meal
ministry – is anything but casual. In
the light behind her grey eyes, you
glimpse the precocious young adult
she would have been back then.
Today the 38-year-old juggles
three related part-time jobs – dietician for one of the Salvation Army’s
drug and recovery centres in the
DTES, meal co-ordinator at a local
church, and co-ordinator for City
Gate Leadership Forum, a nonprofit that helps congregations, charities and changemakers who want
to work with the poor for the
well-being of the city.
So a college-age crush on a fellow
volunteer first brought her, a middle-class girl from the ’burbs, to
serve in this rough-and-tumble
neighborhood. After a circuitous
journey from two years in Jamaica
to a six-year stint in corporate
Vancouver, the grace of God eventually anchored her here.
The cute guy is long gone – he
went to be a missionary overseas
– but Giesbrecht is still here. In
such a transient neighborhood, this
is a feat. It takes a unique brand of
longevity to be able to deal with the
vicissitudes of addiction, chronic
poverty and mental illness. But
Giesbrecht is fixed on being that
regular element in her homeless
and recovering friends’ lives.
Jolene Ricci is also in it for the
long haul. She worked for almost
five years as an outreach worker at
Union Gospel Mission on East
Hastings. Like Giesbrecht and
Sutton, she began as a volunteer,
serving coffee and cleaning up.
Ricci remembers feeling a bit awkward with the DTES population.
“But once you establish a con-
nection with them, that’s when it’s
really rewarding,” she says. “They
would come in, some of them
really dark and not talking. You
could see they came out of their
lonely home. We’d have a meal and
eventually they’d leave a different
person than how they came in.”
It’s important to celebrate the
little victories here. Lost jobs, lost
spouses, lost children and lost
homes are a constant theme, ac-
cording to Ricci. Setbacks are un-
forgiving. So friendship has to be.
Ricci is a hairdresser. She maintains personal friendships with
guests from Union Gospel Mission’s
various programs. In her stylish
loose brown sweater and grey
tights, it’s hard to imagine her befriending DTES residents. But
through free haircuts, meals, hospital visits and mostly just time spent,
she has forged strong bonds.
One of these bonds is with Antoinette and her baby Ania (not
their real names). “I just went to
Ania’s first birthday!” says Ricci.
“Antoinette probably still steals
occasionally. I don’t even want to
know exactly what goes on. But
she’s definitely not using anymore
and she’s a really good mother. She
put on a birthday party like I could
never do. Decorated, in her build-
ing, with treat bags for everyone.”
Ricci first met her on a profes-
sional basis, when she was her
caseworker. Antoinette’s mother
(also struggling with addictions)
had asked her to look out for An-
toinette on the streets. A few weeks
later their paths crossed. Their
friendship bloomed as friendships
will on the DTES, in fits and starts
with interruptions long and short.
“There are some people who just
want stuff from you,” Ricci says.
“But even when Antoinette was in
prison, sending me letters, I would
have a sense that she enjoys our
relationship. She knows I care
about the people in her life.”
Recently, Antoinette has become
stable. But in this neighborhood,
that’s no guarantee of a stable future.
“There are so many crazy stories,”
says Ricci. “You hear about the most
horrific lives that people have led.
But it’s satisfying to know that you’re
able to bring some inspiration or
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