from December, 2008 — can anything have taken place that long ago?

I get between 1000 and 1500 hits on my Flickr page daily, and it’s always interesting to see what’s trending. Lately, a popular pic has been one named spoons, taken a long time agoIt comes with a short article attached, which is unusual for me. I tend to let photographs speak for themselves. I guess I thought this small glimpse into Mary’s life was worth writing about. It went like this…

I was sitting on a window sill outside of Waterfront Station today, when a young woman arrived. She pulled three Georgia Straight newspapers out of the venders’ box a3099565652_b05424ca8a_znd slapped them onto the ground in front of a row of three mail boxes. A panhandler, I thought as she sat down and moved back and forth until she was comfortable. Then she pulled out a paperback novel and began to read and I thought, not a very assertive panhandler.

But that’s how Mary (pseudonym) pans. “People know why I’m here,” she told me. “I don’t have to put on a show.”

Sure enough, the occasional passer-by dropped coins into the paper cup she’d put out for that purpose.

Hmm, I thought, smart panhandler. This thought didn’t have time to spawn another before two well dressed women happened by, and offered Mary a brand new backpack. She knew from past experience what this strange gift was, and asked if she might have another for her boy friend. The two women obliged and then walked on, disappearing into the Gastown crowd.

Cracking both packs open, she took a quick inventory. There were socks, some canned soup, a box of Breton crackers, fruit, three metal utensils and a few other treasures. Mary peeled back the lid of a can of soup and ate her first meal of the day. When she was done, I went over to talk to her. I do this kind of thing a lot. It’s okay, most street people get that I’m slightly insane.

I asked her if it was okay if I wrote about whatever we discussed. “It might end up on the web,” I said.

She shrugged, seeming unsure why anyone would care. Then she said, yes.

“Who were those women who gave you the packs?” I said.

“Christians,” Mary replied, as though they were an exotic species. “They do this every year at Christmas and Easter.”

“Wow,” I said. “There’s some choice loot in there. What’s that red card?”

“A Tim Horton’s gift card,” Mary said, “for ten bucks. I like their chili.”

I looked down and spotted the utensils, again. “Knife, fork and spoon,” I said. “Stainless. That’s cool, but I wonder if plastic wouldn’t be cheaper for the Christians.”

Mary thought a moment and said, “I eat off plastic everyday, in the shelters and soup kitchens. It’s nice to have a stainless knife and fork. And needle users grab all the metal spoons in the neighbourhood.”

“You a needle user?” I asked. I’d learned a long time ago not to beat around the bush with street folk. If you’ve got a question, just ask. If they don’t want to answer, they’ll just tell you to fuck off — what could be more simple and honest?

“I was,” Mary said. “I’m on methadone now.”

Then I asked the inevitable question, “Can I take your photo? It might end up on the net.” There, I said it again.

Another shrug, “Sure.” And then she gave me a sad but winning smile. As usual in such cases, I promised her a print.

* * * * *

Note (2014): Homelessness continues to be a big problem in Vancouver. It isn’t a big city, and its homeless rates are disproportionate to its size. Many of the proposed plans to eliminate homelessness are, not surprisingly, turning out to be just talk.

The backpacks Mary received were generous and welcome, but what she really needed was a home, not a temporary shelter and not Christian charity. Maybe by now, she is housed. I hope so. But Vancouver, the Province of British Columbia and Canada as a whole, continue to ignore poverty and homelessness, and the human suffering they cause.

According to the homeless hub,

Individuals estimated to be

  • living on the streets in Vancouver: 957 (2014)
  • living in facilities (emergency/transitional beds), Vancouver: 1820 (2014)