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.