I really dislike Christmas. I hate all the pomp and ceremony that only ratchets up proportionally the closer we get to the actual day. Living in Metro Vancouver, which holds the infamous Downtown Eastside (DTES), seems to magnify this problem more. There is no shortage of Christmas activities that cause an exodus of ‘do-gooders’ to converge on the DTES all with their ‘unique’ idea that will make Christmas so much better for them. Quite a lot of these people are coming from a religious point of view and add a dose of proselytizing along with their act of ‘kindness.’
The latest example of this is a group of students who decided to take Christmas cards to the DTES so people living there could send cards home. They were also offered the opportunity to have a picture taken or a video. The students would then go back and try to find the families of the people who wanted to send cards, pictures and/or videos to their loved ones.
This endeavor, while on the surface seems harmless however, nothing could be further from the reality. Clearly, people on the DTES are disadvantaged, some are drug or alcohol addicted and others are involved in the survival sex trade. It is a huge assumption to believe that people on the DTES even want contact with their families. Many people are there trying to cope with histories of abuse, neglect and poverty. In all likelihood, there is a long and complicated history between the residents on the DTES and their families. Even discussing their families or origin may really upset and trigger people. Many families may not welcome contact and many people may not want to contact their families for whatever reason.
The reasons people are living in Canada’s poorest postal code are complex. Really, it is the perfect storm of abuse, neglect, lack of opportunity, economics, mental illness, and many other factors. In fact, many of the charities on the DTES really just perpetuate the poverty and relieve some of the suffering rather than addressing the root causes. I would argue that there is no way that charities can address the root causes of what lands people on the DTES. The problem is that government has been off-loading services to lower levels of governments and charities for two decades.
If we are serious about addressing the issues of the DTES and the social issues present, we must begin to vote for politicians who are actually going to do something. We need to elect leaders who have knowledge of how to prevent some of the issues and experiences that lead to people being disenfranchised. These solutions are not cheap. If we were to get serious, we would be debating policy solutions like a guaranteed income for families with children, increasing childhood education, offering resources to families on the edge without the threat that the ministry might take their children, and inexpensive post-secondary education.
The next time you are about to applaud or participate some great initiative to make Christmas better for the citizens of the DTES think about it. Ask questions about how this will make life better for them and look at the values and discourse that are informing this activity. Most of the time you will find that the only people who are really feeling better about things are the people going to the DTES and providing these services.
If, as an individual, you really want to make a difference start to make noise to politicians about changing the system and investing in services that really make a difference. Volunteer at a detox or a rehab program. If you want to provide comfort then volunteer on a weekly basis rather than just the once a year volunteer stint at the local soup kitchen. If you are creative, make things that keep people warm. New socks are an item that provides a great deal of comfort and prevents all sorts of foot issues for people are homeless.
Perhaps the most important thing for people who want to help on the DTES is to understand the issues. Be aware that imposing your beliefs on people is completely unacceptable. You must meet people where they are and show respect to them as individuals. Try to understand what is important to them and go from there. The population on the DTES is heterogeneous – it is not a one size fits all. If you volunteer there, you need to listen and understand. Then maybe, just maybe, you can become part of the solution.