Everyday I walk a gauntlet of outstretched hands, from the homeless to the non-profits, everyone is looking for a handout. I never know what to do. Give, not give, buy food for them, ignore. Meanwhile I too am struggling to survive in this so-called affluent neighbourhood. When I was working on the charity/emergency food system chapter of my new book, I interviewed a couple of our local “street” people. I’d been buying the street paper from Danny for many years. Had exchanged a few words at most. Within minutes of our lunch, I realized he was not at all who I imagined he was. And he had some advice for me when walking the gauntlet.
Where would you like to eat? I asked Danny.
“Capers is good,” he replied.
I was feeling more like a greasy omelette and home fries. I tried to lure him over to my favourite breakfast place.
“I’m sure you always eat there, but if you want a change, I was thinking Joe’s,” I said.
“No, Capers is healthy,” he said firmly, walking in the door of the market. Ok then, healthy it would be.
Danny is 56 years old. He wears a plaid jacket, black jeans and a baseball cap. He was born in New Brunswick. They ate healthy when he was growing up. They snared rabbits, ate deer, moose, fish and lobster. Food was plentiful. When he moved to Ontario with his mother and sister, the food was not so healthy, he told me. Campbell’s soup, Kraft dinner and spaghetti were the mainstays. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 17. Got into drinking and drugging, spent time in mental institutions and prison. He came to Vancouver 18 years ago. He has been drug free for 23 years now and free of booze for ten.
Danny has been selling Megaphone, Vancouver’s street paper, outside of Capers for more than a dozen years. He said that’s how he learned to eat healthy. He had Hepatitis C and now he doesn’t. He cleared his liver up just by eating healthy. Even his doctor was surprised. I remember offering him a cookie once from my shopping bag, but he declined.
“I have to watch it with sugar,” he said. He is also a borderline diabetic. Danny is more health conscious than I am.
“I am self-sufficient,” said Danny. He is not on welfare. He has two jobs, selling the magazine – “ and he is out there every day, for long hours – “ and he works part time as the social coordinator for a non-profit community mental health service with a drop in centre here in the ‘hood.
Danny used to live on the downtown eastside. “I got out of there,” he said. Now he lives in a modest place in a neighbourhood not too far from this one. His rent has gone up three times since he moved there nine years ago. He used to line up in soup lines and the food bank, but now he cooks at home. When I ask if he knows about Quest Outreach Society, a food recovery agency that has several low cost stores, he says he does. The mental health place gets food from Quest for their meal programs. But he doesn’t and wouldn’t shop there.
“I don’t want to take from someone else, now that I can afford to buy my own groceries,” he says.
I tell Danny about my struggle when I walk the gauntlet. “What should I do?” I ask.
“It’s hard to say,” he says, “I contribute too.” I did not expect that answer.
In between bites of my tofu spread sandwich, I find out that Danny has his own car.
“I don’t even own a car!” I say. And he’s taking Ju-Jitsu three times a week. My whole impression of him has changed. This is just a man who works in my neighbourhood, has the same kind of struggles I do and cares about the things I do.
“There are too many in a small area,” he says. “It’s because the government has cut so many services. People don’t have anywhere to turn. There aren’t the resources to help them find the right connections. And they give up.”
When I ask him how he turned around, he said, “At a certain point, you have a choice.”
Now that he’s clean, he says socializing outside Capers with all his many friends and supporters helps to keep his mind out of its old thought patterns. He really likes his work.
When I tell him I’m interviewing a few others on “the corner”. He gets protective of me.
“Look I even ripped off my own mother to get money for drugs. I was able to make amends 20 years later though.” And then as if to soften the warning, “But we’re not all bad,” he said.
I thanked him. We shook hands. “See you tomorrow Danny,” I said.