To many, the throng of people on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is an unsightly mass of humanity best passed through quickly with eyes averted.
But educator Kristi Blakeway, who has been taking her students to East Hastings Street for 10 years, says the mass is a supportive community of men and women, many with heart-breaking stories to tell and hard lives that have meaning if people would only take the time to listen.
“How do we shift people’s perception of homeless? I don’t think people understand the stories behind the people on the street," she said.
"People will say, 'Get a job' or they’ll look at the addiction as the root cause instead of looking at the pain underneath the addiction,” Blakeway told The Tri-City News.
“We usually respond with food or clothing but we’re not addressing the emotional need.”
For Blakeway and her students, it’s the emotional connection that’s most important.
In 2009, Blakeway started Project HELLO (Helping Everyone Locate Loved Ones) in which Dr. Charles Best secondary school students gave Downtown Eastside residents Christmas cards to send to family members and helped them find relatives they hadn’t seen or heard from in years using social media to find them.
The program continued when Blakeway moved to Maple Ridge to become a high school principal, and was in fact expanded into Beyond HELLO, a lunch and listen initiative, in which students provide a listening ear to those who join them at a restaurant for a hot meal.
Over the years, students have connected with hundreds of residents in the Downtown Eastside, including a woman named Sandra, who has since passed, who was reconnected with her daughter through the program when it was at Dr. Charles Best.
Blakeway said she, too, has learned a few lessons along the way from the people she has met — including how to love and understand her own father, who left her family when she was three years old and never had a relationship with his children. He was homeless at one point, and Blakeway now believes it was shame that kept him away from his kids.
“I think my dad thought he was doing me a favour by staying out of my life.”
Some might think the Downtown Eastside is too dangerous for kids, but Blakeway disagrees.
In fact, she said residents watch out for the teens, letting each other know that there are youth in the area by crying out “Kids on the block.” And although East Hastings is more crowded now than in years past, those who live there are all unique — each with their own stories to tell.
Over the years, Blakeway has blogged about the experiences but to reach a wider audience, has now published a book, Beyond HELLO: Rekindling the Human Spirit One Conversation at a Time, which is available at local bookstores as well as at amazon.ca. (Proceeds go towards the Better Life Foundation and free meals for DTES residents.)
“The one thing I would say is a lot of our students who have been part of our project have shifted their ideas about potential careers, and a lot end up in helping professions,” said Blakeway, who added she hopes Beyond HELLO can be reproduced in other communities.
“This was supposed to be a field trip in 2009 that started at 9 (a.m.) and ended at 3 (p.m.), and 10 years later, it has no end date.
"I still get a lot of letters from parents who have received cards, [and I think], OK, we’d better continue this project.”