You never know what a situation is really like until you see for it yourself. Homelessness in Vancouver is no exception to that rule.
As someone who has a long history of dealing with social service agencies, homeless shelters, and outreach people across Canada, I thought I knew about the living conditions on the streets in Canada; however when I launched Project Winter Survival this past weekend in Vancouver, I saw firsthand exactly how desperate things really are.
The idea of bringing Project Winter Survival -- the volunteer-run organization I co-founded, which provides essential supplies to people living on the street during the winter -- to Vancouver came about when our long-term sponsor, Hain-Celestial Canada, mentioned that its Vancouver office wanted to get involved. I had known there was a demand for Project Winter Survival in Vancouver, but I was unaware just how strong the need was until I saw it with my own eyes.
I flew in a day early on Wednesday, January 23, and my first order of business was to walk the streets to assess the homeless situation in the city. I've grown extremely comfortable working with the homeless since founding Project Winter Survival, and was curious about how much the city could benefit from having an annual event.
I began out on foot, intending to meet with the team at Salvation Army Vancouver Harbour Light. The air was damp and cool, but far from the frigid Toronto temperatures I had left behind. Because the conditions seemed far less severe, I was optimistic about the difference a survival kit could make in this climate. It was also seeming clear why so many homeless travel to Vancouver rather than spending the winters in harsher regions like Southern Ontario.
However, as I navigated the streets, my cautious optimism dwindled with every block.
As I approached the neighbourhood which held many of the areas' shelters, the number of homeless drastically increased. What began as a few homeless people scattered along the street corners quickly became a sea of people in desperate need of food, clothing, and, most importantly, hope.
As I attempted to wade through the dense crowd, an anxiety I hadn't felt in years began grow in my stomach. Despite all my work in Toronto, I had never seen such a concentration of people so desperate for help. Many of the homeless people were wandering around, seemingly in a daze and quite obviously under the influence. There were crowds huddled in doorways purchasing and injecting drugs openly. In a matter of only three blocks, it seemed like there were hundreds of homeless people scattered all over the street.
Focused, I continued to push through, my eyes fixed ahead of me. I was no longer anxious, I was scared!
And I was ashamed that I was scared amongst the people I had always tried to help.
I felt that I was becoming lost within the crowd, becoming invisible amongst people who had also become invisible to so much of society. Panic was stiffening me; the sheer number of homeless was unbelievable, and I felt as though I was no closer to the edge of the crowd despite my determined trek through the masses.
I then saw the red shield. Surrounded by the city's most vulnerable, I had reached The Salvation Army Vancouver Harbour Light. For me, it was light at the end of the tunnel -- for the hundreds of homeless around me, it was a symbol of support.
I made my way to the doors, and a calm erased the almost paralyzing anxiety that had accompanied me on the streets.
The Harbor Light team helped to bring some clarity to what I had just experienced. They explained that perhaps the streets were particularly busy with the homeless because welfare cheques had just come out, or because it was great weather for returning empty bottles in exchange for the small deposits that are paid out.
Whatever the draw, it had clearly attracted drug dealers, many of them scattered along the sidewalks to service their clients, further perpetuating their dire situations. I was no longer just saddened by the state of the east side -- I had grown angry.
This experience will drive me to do much more.
But about the majority of people who will never experience the kind of first-hand shock to the system that I did that day? The issue of homelessness remains an uphill battle because it's easy to be indifferent to the struggles of homeless people when you do don't have to face them.
That's why I encourage everyone to experience Project Winter Survival's new public service announcement, which was created by Toronto agency Blammo Worldwide. It helps open people's eyes the simple fact that homeless people are dying in these extreme conditions, and reinforces the idea that this isn't a problem we should be turning away from.
If you'd like to learn more about Project Winter Survival, and how you can help the homeless in your community, please visit our website.
A Russian dashboard camera recently caught a heartwarming act of kindness that took place on a bustling street. An old woman was in the midst of crossing a road with obvious difficulty when an SUV stopped mid-intersection. The driver exited the vehicle and grabbed the woman's bag, offering her an arm to help her get across safely.
To honor the memory of a soldier who was killed in action, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/23/facebook-user-sends-beer-on-behalf-of-fallen-navy-seal_n_1375924.html" target="_hplink">Jeff Beurline corded off a special spot</a> at his local bar in Connecticut for Lt. Michael P. Murphy. Beurline bought Murphy -- or "Murph," as he was known by friends -- a Guinness and propped a reserved sign on the beer alongside an American flag. The bartender not only agreed to pour random strangers a Guinness throughout the day, but also offered to pay the costs. Read Beurline's account of the act of kindness in his <a href="https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=151522458303677&id=182249954768" target="_hplink">post on Seal of Honor's Facebook page</a>. (Image via Facebook, <a href="http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1732927463" target="_hplink">Jeff Beurline</a>).
A McDonald's surveillance camera caught a San Diego police officer's small -- but powerful -- act of kindness on tape. What makes the moment special is not the act itself, but that it happened mere minutes before the officer, <a href="http://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/Officer-Henwoods-Final-Act-of-Kindness-127886453.html" target="_hplink">Jeremy Henwood, was gunned down</a> in his patrol car.
To protect the family of Lt. Col. Roy Tisdale from anti-gay protesters on the day of his funeral, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/06/texas-am-students_n_1653002.html" target="_hplink">Texas A&M students and alumni donned maroon</a> and formed a human wall. Westboro Baptist Church members, who often stage demonstrations military funerals, were planning to stage a protest outside Tisdale's funeral, but never showed up. Fortunately, an estimated 650 people in maroon were there to make sure the family could mourn in peace. (Image via Facebook, Leslie Mott)
Sara Tucholsky, a softball player for Western Oregon University, scored a three-run homerun for the first time in her college career in a game against Central Washington University. But while touching first base, she injured her knee. The rules stated that none of her teammates could assist her. So instead, two players from the opposing team -- Mallory Holtman and Liz Wallace -- carried Tucholsky to each base. All three players received a standing ovation.
Wheelchair-bound Patrick Connelly began to cry when he couldn't see over the standing fans at a Blake Shelton concert. His mother, Cheryl Connelly, and her daughter, tried to pick Patrick up so he could see, but were unable to hold his weight for long in the sweltering heat. It wasn't until <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/16/strangers-help-disabled-f_n_1677391.html" target="_hplink">two strangers hoisted Patrick up</a> and held him aloft for a half-hour that Patrick was able to finally enjoy the concert.
It was the fourth inning of the Milwaukee Brewers vs. Arizona Diamondbacks game. A player tossed a ball into the stands and <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfF1m3-Dl_Q" target="_hplink">12-year-old Ian McMillan</a> ended up catching it while a younger baseball fan cried on the sidelines. Seeing the young boy's reaction, Ian handed over his prize, later explaining "it was the right thing to do."
After winning the state title for the 1600 meter race, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/05/meghan-vogel-ohio-track-star-carries-runner-video_n_1570857.html" target="_hplink">Ohio track star Meghan Vogel</a> intentionally finished in last place in the 3200 meter race by carrying an injured competitor over the finish line.
While in China, Jason Loose, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/31/american-french-fry-brother-jason-loose_n_1559531.html" target="_hplink">who is now known as "French Fry Brother,"</a> sat down to chat with a homeless woman and offered her some of his fries. Loose's random act of kindness, caught on camera by a passerby, made waves among Chinese microblogging sites for his altruism. (Image via Matt Cao/Sina Weibo)
Aaron Collins' family fulfilled his final wish by giving a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/12/aaron-collins-family-leaves-500-tip-pizza-last-wish_n_1668533.html" target="_hplink">$500 tip to an unsuspecting waitress</a> at Puccini's Smiling Teeth in Lexington, Ky. "Are you serious?" the waitress asked after being handed the hefty cash tip. Yes, the Collins family is serious and plans to continue handing out $500 tips in Aaron's memory.
Vincent Gabriel Kirouac is making his way across Canada with his horse Coeur de Lion in a crusade to promote manners and chivalry. While the 22-year-old has saved up for the journey over the past two years, he told <em>CBC</em> that <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/offbeat/story/2012/07/12/sk-quebec-knight-kirouac-saskatchewan-120712.html" target="_hplink">he has never spent a night outdoors</a>. In fact, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/14/vincent-gabriel-kirouac-chivalry-canada-knight_n_1672126.html" target="_hplink">Kirouac relies on kind strangers</a> to provide free room and board each night.
Sean O'Connor <a href="http://www.reddit.com/r/AskReddit/comments/rjkoy/hey_reddit_my_47_year_old_uncle_scott_widak_has/" target="_hplink">posted a call-out on Reddit</a> on behalf of his uncle Scott Widak, who was terminally ill and had Down syndrome. "He is currently bedridden and living out his last days at home with my 85 year old grandmother. One of his favorite things to do is open mail...anyone feel like sending him a letter or card?" O'Connor wrote in a post. Within days, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/14/scott-widak-reddit_n_1514338.html" target="_hplink">Reddit users sent hundreds of letters and gifts</a> to the bedridden 47-year-old. O'Connor <a href="http://www.reddit.com/r/pics/comments/w8hes/dear_reddit_my_uncle_scott_who_had_down_syndrome/" target="_hplink">returned to Reddit in July</a> following his uncle's death to thank users for reaching out.
When 8-year-old <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/19/johnny-karlinchak-neighbor-lemonade-stand_n_1687656.html" target="_hplink">Johnny Karlinchak saw his neighbor's house crushed</a> by a 60-foot-oak, he ran to his piggy bank and emptied its contents into his neighbor's hands. Unfortunately, the $1.25 would not cover Elissa Myers' $500 deductible so Johnny took to what he knew best -- selling lemonade -- to cover the deficit. (Image via Getty)
Cyclist <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/05/19/caring-cyclist-homeless-youtube_n_1529649.html" target="_hplink">Lewis Dediara captured his random act of kindness on tape</a> during one of his bike rides through London. Dediara, who wears a head-mounted camera, offered to buy a homeless man whatever he wanted to eat from a nearby convenience store after he found him sifting through a trash can.
Customers at a particular Tennessee gas station got quite a surprise when they learned that their gas was already paid for by a generous stranger. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/12/23/tennessee-man-buys-gas-fo_n_402179.html" target="_hplink">Don Reed decided to fill up 80 strangers' cars</a> with money out of his own pocket and send them on their way. His generosity was all part of a plan to spread holiday cheer in December.
Sacrificing the safety of her own vehicle, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/11/lezlie-bicknell-woman-saves-kids-runaway-car_n_1664973.html" target="_hplink">Lezlie Bicknell acted on instinct</a> and rushed to the rescue of two children left unattended in a van that was slowly rolling out of a New Mexico parking lot toward a busy intersection.
Local businesses in Aurora, Colo., banded together to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/21/aurora-businesses-fix-stolen-jeep_n_974141.html" target="_hplink">restore a woman's Jeep that had been stolen and destroyed</a> following news reports of the unfortunate theft. After two weeks of nonstop work, Jovan Williams' Jeep was returned to her in 'better-than-new' condition.
Following a post on Reddit by her dad, Kyle, 5-year-old Alexis Blackburn received a flurry of cards and well wishes from caring strangers. The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/18/alexis-blackburn-reddit_n_1680641.html" target="_hplink">overflow of support for Alexis</a> inspired someone to create a Reddit thread seeking other sick children in need of encouragement. (<a href="http://imgur.com/niLv8" target="_hplink">Image via Imgur</a>)
Fiona, a poodle mix, was sick, blind and infested with fleas when she was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/26/blind-dog-fiona-in-trash-rescue_n_1379889.html" target="_hplink">rescued from a trash heap</a> by Eldad Hagar and his wife Audrey. After a nationwide fundraising effort that raised $4,000 for an eye surgery, Fiona is now able to see in one eye. She was adopted by a caring family and is reportedly "doing amazing." <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> This slide has been updated to show the correct spelling of Eldad's last name.</em>
After receiving a phone call from a Georgia animal shelter, Brenda Travis and her husband Tom Shield were overjoyed to learn that their basset hounds, who had been missing for five years, had been found. However, the couple, who had relocated to Kansas, did not have the means to pick up the dogs, so they <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/17/stolen-dogs_n_1678733.html" target="_hplink">turned to volunteers on Facebook</a> who offered to bring the dogs nearly 1,000 miles from the Georgia animal shelter to the couple's home in Kansas.
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