Recently I wrote a post about engaging in my community (see here). Well, I decided to take it a step further than merely going to a once weekly yoga class at the local community centre. Something I had wanted to do for ages was to get involved again in my community in a way that gave back, rather than just focused on selfish pursuits. I don’t have loads of spare time, so that was limiting of course, but eventually, one day as I browsed the Craigslist volunteer postings, I came across something that suited me well.
“Volunteers needed to help serve soup/coffee in the downtown east side” (aka DTES) or something along those lines, between 7am – 9am. Anyone familiar with Vancouver will know that the downtown east side is a less desirable area of the city. It is home to many homeless people (what an irony), people with addictions, mental health issues, those who have run up against hard luck and so on and so forth. There are a couple of streets that I would be unwilling to walk down on my own at night, and would even be rather skittish to tackle in the day time. Most of the time, nothing untoward happens, but you never know. One often sees people sleeping in doorways on cardboard (if they are so lucky) or just on the side of the footpath. In many parts of downtown (not just the east side) I have been approached and asked for money or food. I am reluctant to give money as I don’t know where it goes – into a bottle, up an arm? Or actually on food? But there is a problem here in Vancouver, one many people try to ignore, and giving my time is one of the best ways I can see to contribute.
So I responded to the ad. Turns out there is a place called The Dugout (see home page here) that acts as a community lounge in the DTES. It offers soup and coffee in the morning, then offers a place to sit and chat during the day, watch tv, use a computer, get a free loaf of bread and find out about other services that may be able to help depending on one’s situation. It caters to people who live in single room occupancies (SRO), the homeless and people in between the two. I have now been going there one morning a week for the last month, between 7 – 9 am, ladling out soup, helping with set up before the doors open at 730am, and helping to clean up when the doors shut again at 830am (to be re-opened 9am – 4pm). Getting up between 6 – 630am may not be my ideal waking hour, but doing this once a week does not even register on the scale of discomfort and misfortune that others going there deal with on a daily basis.
I must confess to some apprehension about going there my first morning. I have not had much contact with people in less fortunate situations such as I have described. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But what I encountered surprised me. Here is one portion of society who has not forgotten their manners – more thank you’s and please’s than I have heard in a long time. Each morning, a queue forms quietly out the back door, and I rarely see any pushing or disagreements. Scruffy beards and long hair hide quiet, well-spoken men who sound reasonably (sometimes surprisingly) well-educated. Some present with neatly clipped facial hair and clean, tidy, albeit maybe old clothing. A few engage in light hearted chatter. There has been 1 or 2 who were a bit loud, clearly either high or coming down off something, but the other staff and volunteers handle this so well, and I take my lead from them. What has brought these (largely) men to this place? I am certain there are some harrowing stories behind the haunted eyes and attempted jollity. I am curious yet scared of the stories these people could tell.
I hope to be able to continue helping out at The Dugout. It is such a small thing from me, but sometimes a smile or a “good morning” along with a coffee and some food may be all it takes to start someone’s day off a little better than the previous day ended.