Editors’ note: This is part three of a five-part series of stories from Tent City, which until Oct. 16 was located in a park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and populated by people without housing. Over five workshops, camp residents worked to tell their own stories. Participants shared their stories with one another in a talking circle, learned to develop their narrative through popular education techniques and practiced writing through journalistic narrative. Special thanks go to our new authors from Tent City: Rita, Zucchini, Erika, Scott and Jason. Ricochet would like to acknowledge the City of Vancouver for helping fund this work through the 2014 Homelessness Action Week grant.
Introduction by Melissa Fong
I met Erika (name changed at her request) while sitting at the southeast side of Oppenheimer Park. She came up to me and asked me for change. I rummaged through my pockets to find 35 cents. We both laughed. She sat down and asked me where I was from. I answered and asked the same. She then inquired, “Why are you still here?”
I was taken aback by this question and told her about the Ricochet project I was working on. “I’m looking for people at Tent City to write their story. But not like the mainstream media do. I want people here to tell it as it is and get paid as an author.”
She replied, “No, I mean most people like you run away when they are near people like me.”
I asked Erika if she wanted to be part of the project. Her head slung down as she said, “I can’t write anymore. But I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
“How about you talk and I write it down?” I offered.
People have stories that they express in different ways. In Erika’s case, she told me her story and also wanted to try her hand at writing a poem about her experience at Tent City.
My name is Erika. I grew up in Whitby, a small town near Toronto, in a foster family. I thought about running away when I was really young, about 12 years old. My foster mom had two of her own kids and then me. I didn’t feel like I was part of the family.
One day, when I was young, I came home in the summer. It was really hot, and I drank all the orange juice in the fridge. My foster mom yelled at me after she found the empty carton and said that the orange juice was for her kids and it wasn’t for me. After that, we had two fridges: one that was locked and one that was for me. I usually got watered-down milk and juice. I don’t know, this is not about telling you my sob story. But you asked me to write who I am and where I am from, and this is the first time I remember feeling like I was worthless.
I came to Vancouver when I was 19, after moving around and trying Montreal, which is cheaper but has a very cold winter. I heard such wonderful things about Vancouver, and when I first came here I thought it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen.
When I first came here a man approached me on the street and said I was very beautiful. I was young and had not dated much before. I thought we had fallen in love, but after a few months he dumped me. He told me he had a wife and kids already and I was just there for fun. This is the second time I felt truly worthless.
A lot of bad temporary jobs later, and I’m almost 40 years old with a bad back and no home. I worked as a waitress, a telemarketer, a door-to-door salesperson and many other jobs but always struggled to make rent. After a while, nobody wanted to rent to me. My landlord kicked me out because I couldn’t pay $600 every month. He changed the locks on me. One person in the building said that if I did him favours he would let me stay, but I didn’t want to find out what those “favours” were.
Nobody will rent to me because I’m an addict. I smoke because you don’t feel the pain when you’re high. You also don’t care what other people think. Yeah, I use it to escape. My fingers are blistered, and people look at me like I’m disgusting and worthless. Nowadays it is hard to believe anything else.
I went to school and learned how to read and write. But I haven’t put pen to paper in so long, and my hands are too shaky to write anyway. I’m a good talker. All my jobs involved talking.
I’ve been living in Tent City on and off for about two months. Somebody donated a small tent to me and I share it with two other people. What I love here most is that it’s a community down here. What I don’t like about it is the way reporters come down here and make us look like we are a bunch of no-good druggies.
I was told I could also write a poem. So I did.
Composite: A poem about being an object of homelessness
I am here every day. Every night.
Reporters come in and out and shove cameras into my face.
I am a composite of the drunk, crackhead, destitute
that they want to steal for their news.
I am shown stumbling because I’m tired.
I’m tired because I slept on the ground and have back pain from the job that “let me go” when I pulled my back when lifting the large wooden plank that nobody else wanted to move.
I stumble because my blood sugar is low from type 1 diabetes.
I am neither drunk nor high. Just tired.
Tired of defending myself from the cold, from the bed bugs and
from the catcalling I get on the street.
Tired of defending not only my body, but my mind
Telling even myself that I’m the sickness that they portray me as.
There are shelters nearby that I could stay at.
A temporary roof over my head is possible.
But what about the bloodied bites I get in the morning?
What of the smells and sneezes that I will catch?
What of the fact that no friend or relative is allowed in to visit me?
How about when my time is up and I’m back on the streets?
Tent City is not perfect.
We fight and we ache.
But we also resolve and heal.
The cameras don’t care to catch that.
One reporter stays in the tents with us.
Unnamed he walks on by and stares at us.
A flâneur in our midst.
He waits for a moment of weakness to snap that photo.
I can’t even be safe in my own home.
Why don’t they go somewhere else? Why us?
Why must they watch us and judge us?
They say that vulnerabilities show that we are human.
But I am vulnerable all the time, without shelter — in public — without a safe place to even bathe.
If I am vulnerable all the time,
why am I not treated as more human?
I am seen. Always seen.
Not a moment of privacy to call my own.
To them, I am a composite.
Not a person.