Volunteering for the homeless of Vancouver’s DTES

Taking a stroll through Downtown Eastside, it’s no wonder this community is the poorest in all of Canada. Vancouver’s inner-city residents face numerous challenges such as addiction, mental illness and the ongoing housing crisis makes matters worse for anyone who’s managed to stay immune to the first two.

Rudimentary efforts to address this crisis exist, both through advocacy movements as well as charities stepping up to provide basic necessities such as food and shelter. Both are equally important, for until we address the root causes of poverty and homelessness, the charity work can seem like a ‘band-aid’ solution. However, people do need to get fed and clothed, which is why the Feed the Hungry project has been a worthwhile cause to volunteer your time with.

171_19571895346_8569_nThe monthly event prepares and serves lunches for one hundred plus homeless men and women of the inner-city. The project addresses another worthy goal: bringing volunteers from different backgrounds. This includes travelers from around the world who believe in meaningful travel and volunteerism. To you, the idea of homeless people in a wealthy city like Vancouver is a dichotomy. However, this phenomenon is common in most big cities of Canada and the U.S. While volunteering with local charities in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles during my travels, I noticed a remarkable wealth gap among residents – perhaps a pitfall of capitalism itself. It was my experience with these projects that prompted me to get involved with DTES and a critical initiative like Feed the Hungry.

Besides volunteering at the lunches, the experience of meeting and talking to the homeless can be eye-opening. There’s a lot of stigma attached to homelessness, regardless of whether you’re local or a foreigner. Not everyone who is homeless has addiction or mental health issues. Some of them once led very positive lives but they lost their job or went through a crisis like divorce, and became very vulnerable. Especially in a city where rent is so high that all it takes is one missed payment. I’ve even encountered people who have full time jobs, and yet can’t make ends meet!

stuff-010Another reason Vancouver has so many homeless people is because it takes in the homeless from other Canadian cities with their harsh winters; Vancouver’s mild weather makes it a little more bearable to sleep on the streets. Whatever the reasons, I’ve found the people to be quite smart and aware of both local as well as global issues. And I’ve never, ever, felt unsafe walking the streets of DTES – something I can’t say for many cities of the world.

Volunteering with the homeless of Vancouver is a learning experience for travelers which I’m sure you’ll take back with you; and for locals living in Vancouver, a great project to get involved in your own backyard.

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