In recognition of Homelessness Action Week October 11 to October 17, Vancity Buzz will be featuring profiles and interviews with former residents of the Downtown East Side, organizations trying to make a difference, and the history of one of Vancouver’s most notorious neighbourhoods.
This series is presented in partnership with the Union Gospel Mission, which offers support, programs, and resources for people looking to overcome their addictions, reenter the work force, and take back control of their lives.
On Saturday, October 17, 2015 UGM invites you to learn about the DTES community through the Hello Neighbour Project, which offers neighbourhood walks and a community plunge at Oppenheimer Park. For more info visit www.ugm.ca/haw
More information on the Union Gospel Mission can be found online.
In a lot of ways, Loretta John’s story is a common one. A member of the Carrier First Nation in Prince George, her parents were survivors of Canada’s residential school system. In what was called the “Sixties Scoop” John and her siblings were separated from their parents and placed in to foster care and the adoption system.
John was always heavily involved in alcohol, and started drinking when she was just 10 years old. When her kids were 14, they voluntarily put themselves in the foster care. Once her husband of 17 years passed away, things fell apart completely.
“I was homeless, and did couch surfing, and just kind of hit bottom after my husband passed away,” she says. She bounced from place to place, without a fixed address, for a year and a half
What finally pushed John to begin her healing journey was the response she got when she told her kids she planned on getting sober.
“I said: ‘Oh, mum’s quit!’ and they said: ‘Mum, you always say you quit.’ Just the way they said it, they just quit believing in me,” she says. “I thought this was it, because it was just too hurtful to see the reaction I got.”
John first began her recovery with Sun Dance Chief Reuben George of the Carrier Nation. After attending counseling with George, she got housing through More Than a Roof, a Christian organization that supplies housing for people in addiction recovery programs. Through More Than a Roof she linked up with Mission: Possible, and obtained her security license through their Security Outreach program.
John now works as an Outreach Security guard for Mission: Possible, making the trek through the Downtown East Side where she keeps an eye on residents, ensuring people have safe places to sleep, the access to food and water that they need, and the knowledge that someone is looking out for them.
“I was taken care of by a lot of people on the Downtown East Side,” she says. “I was grateful that they loved me.”
John says this feeling of love is what many DTES residents are missing. Many of them, even in the depths of their darkest days, simply want to know they’re loved.
“When I was down there, my family prayed for me, and they really loved me. They were worried about me,” she says. “But when you’re down here you just believe that you’re not loved and you’re not wanted, so you just stay.”
Letting people know they’re wanted and loved is John’s primary goal in her work.
“When I leave them I always say ‘I love you,'” she says. “My coworkers are like ‘Why do you say that?’ and I tell that them if these are the last words they hear, I want them to know that somebody loves them.”
John’s relationships with her children, family, and friends have been improved tenfold by her time in recovery. With custody of her granddaughter, John has applied the parenting skills she was missing with her own children to the life of her grandchild.
“I see the difference in raising my kids, and talking to them now. They always bring up the past, and I tell them that that’s why you seek help. You have to find a good counselor, and if that one doesn’t fit then there are 40 more that might fit for you,” she says, relaying advice she’s given to her children. “‘You can’t keep using [the past] as a crutch, because I want you to be more successful than mum. I don’t want you to wait until you’re 40. I want you to do it while you’re young, so you have a chance to give back.'”
John will be a guide in this year’s “Hello Neighbour” project, which will feature walking tours of the DTES, hosted by former residents. She takes it as an opportunity to share the history of the First Nations in the area, and the plight experienced by many First Nations today, including the many missing and murdered women, with cases unsolved in Metro Vancouver.
She shared the story of one woman in particular, who went through treatment with John. After she was found on the infamous farm of Vancouver serial killer Robert “Willy” Pickton, John met the woman’s family. A victim of the Sixties Scoop as well, she had only briefly reconnected with them before disappearing for the last time.
“I met three of her sisters and her brother, and they said ‘We just got her back, and now she’s gone,'” says John. “I wanted to share what she shared with me. I just wanted to share a part of her story, just so they knew that side of her, instead of what happened to her. At least they understand more about their sister, about their loved one.”