The Downtown Eastside is a community that is unified by its sheer diversity. Every Downtown Eastside resident I have met during my time volunteering with Bumpin Bakery comes from a different place, harbours varying ideologies, hopes for different things and carries themselves through life in a uniquely individualizing way.
One gentleman I talked to in passing briefly but passionately iterated that he honors health above all, emphasizing that without health we can have nothing else. Happiness, belonging and every other virtue worshipped by the general population mean nothing without a healthy body and a healthy mind, things which give you the ability to seek your needs and achieve your goals. He told me this mindset comes from losing countless friends and acquaintances to overdoses, which has molded him into somebody who fights everyday to defend his health, firstly from others, who want to destroy his health through fighting, theft or other means, but most importantly, himself, when depression wants to starve him and addiction wants to claim him.
Health can mean the world to some, but for others, their world revolves around something invisible, something outside this world. Those who believe their lives are orchestrated by a higher power let religion guide them, knowing that everything which happens happens for a reason known only by the person who created this world. I met a man whose confidence was apparent from across the street; talking to him, I discovered how he could manoeuvre through life so utterly unfazed- his faith. He believes he is protected by God, and when it is his time to go, he knows it will be by God’s hands. He lost his family in a car crash, which killed his wife and children and left him as the lone survivor. He sees their deaths as merciful, though, a necessary measure to be taken so they could live comfortably in heaven by God’s side as they wait patiently for their father’s arrival.
It is also important to remember that what a person honours cannot always be formulated into words. As Bumpin Bakery was coming to a close one Sunday morning, we had one cup of hot chocolate left and two gentlemen were standing there waiting. We gave the cup to the gentlemen that arrived first, but, without missing a beat, he offered to share the hot chocolate with the other man and asked for a second cup. It was heartwarming to see this man pouring half of his hot chocolate into another cup to give to a stranger. This instance also reminded me of the importance of sharing in a community that suffers from limited resources and contains people that own very little- a selfish mindset results in everybody’s downfall.
This moment also made a certain gentleman named Herb resurface in my mind. He is a First Nations regular of Bumpin Bakery who fights for his rights and gives back where he can. He honours a strong and caring spirit, which resulted in him receiving a land settlement cheque from the government after endlessly battling for his tribe to receive the recognition they deserve as the rightful owners of land unjustly claimed and snatched away by the hands of an imposing white government. He never gave up, but didn’t think selfishly using the money he received reflected the recognition he wanted- he wanted to be apart of a community, something he never experienced growing up in Canadian homes after being ripped away for his birth family and tribe as part of the assimilation program, a program that disrespected and shunned his culture. He didn’t want to be alone, and didn’t want anyone else to feel the way he did, so he offered to use the cheque to host a thanksgiving dinner for the Downtown Eastside community last October. Thankfully, Bumpin Bakery dontations meant he didn’t have to use the cheque at all, but he still got to orchestrate this beautiful gathering of community members, something that wouldn’t have happened at all without his generous idea.
Culture, community, generosity, religion, and health- these are just a fraction of the things needed to heal a mind, body and soul that have been ravaged by the reality of living on the streets. Bumpin Bakery provides all these things and more- its volunteers care about every single person that shows up, whether a regular or a newcomer, and demonstrates this by trying to connect with, and relate to, community members on a personal level. It starts with a coffee in one hand and a muffin in the other, which sparks a conversation that encourages hope and openness, since Bumpin’s mission is to make no one feel like they have to suffer alone. They are a helping hand and an open ear for the Downtown Eastside community- a reliable Sunday morning get-together of friends is the organization’s goal. Euphemia, one of the teacher organizers, even prepares special gift bags every so often for regulars that have touched her heart and made Bumpin Bakery brighter with their presence.
Becoming comfortable interacting with the Downtown Eastside community should start when you are young. That is why Bumpin Bakery recruits elementary, high school and university kids, since no matter what stage of adolescence you are experiencing, forming relationship with people living alternatively in a marginalized section of Vancouver with always open your eyes to the harmful reality of discrimination. Many consider homelessness a disgusting and avoidable lifestyle, but, as proven above, Downtown Eastside residents honour the same things we do and can even hold themselves to a higher standard of virtue, since, in many cases, that is the only thing they can truly call their own. The Downtown Eastside is not hurting itself, it is the stigma of homelessness that is leaving the Downtown Eastside battered, bruised and helpless as the unfair target of relentless hatred. Downtown Eastisde residents embrace change, as fighting change can mean the difference between life and death; thus, 21st century societal stubbornness has never had the chance to seep into the Downtown Eastside, and so we can all learn something from the caring nature of those who have so little.
As many regulars say to the volunteers, “God Bless You”, and never forget to honour humanity’s virtues that tie us all together.