Downtown Eastside school breakfast program

Downtown Eastside school breakfast program

For those struggling to stay housed and feed themselves on marginal incomes or social assistance that’s how it’s done. Pride is an extravagance, resilience is more useful.

To those who don’t live there, the Downtown Eastside is Vancouver’s valley of the poor and the influence it exerts over the imagination of those living in comfort elsewhere is profound.

It’s the sheer weight of the suffering that’s obvious on the streets of Canada’s poorest postal code — the addiction, the mental illness, the homelessness, the poverty.

But what isn’t so obvious is the courage and dignity of many of its residents, an example of which are a woman and her daughter who agreed to talk to The Vancouver Sun about the importance of its Adopt-A-School (AAS) campaign for families leg-trapped, as they are, by poverty.

They asked to remain anonymous for the interview which took place in Britannia Secondary on Cotton Drive  — one of the schools that sought AAS help for a breakfast program in danger of being closed.

“The breakfast program — it’s been a real blessing,” says the mother.

“I’m a single mom with two boys, 17 and nine with special needs. So you are alone and the cost of everything is so high in Vancouver that it really helps me they are having a healthy breakfast. It would be a great loss if it wasn’t there.”

Having the school feed her children breakfast and lunch is essential for the family to get through the month. And when those meals are missing during holidays it makes a big dent in the money left over after she pays rent.

Her daughter is 19 and attending Vancouver Community College so the mother supports the four of them from what she earns as a peer support worker doing night shift in a local shelter for the poorest of the poor.

“It’s a low threshold shelter, open 24-hours, we see people with drug addiction and old people coming in too frightened to stay at night in their SRO’s (the notorious single occupancy rooms). I don’t have any education but I come from this neighbourhood and I’ve had hardship in my life so I can offer them support. I also clean and make beds,” she says.

The family live nearby in subsidized social housing where deaths from fentanyl are common.

“Without that we’d be homeless. After the fire (they were burned out of a housing co-op near Oppenheimer Park a couple of years ago) we were lucky to get B.C. Housing.

“No one wants to rent to a single mom with three kids. I used to go to places and pretend I was babysitting. I’d say ‘I’m just looking after them’ and then one of the boys would call me mom and I’d say ‘ oh, isn’t it sad, I look after him so much he thinks I’m his mother.’”

It’s a funny moment but not much of her life has been lighthearted. She was brought up in foster care and gave birth to her daughter when she was 17. Then she quit school.

She has been on her own without parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, cousins, aunts or uncles to turn to for help. Her children have a mother and each other and no one else,

And so the kindness of anyone who helps this little group goes straight to the heart.

“I’m a very isolated parent so I don’t have a support group but this breakfast program really helps our family. The school is my support group, the teachers, and the community centre. It’s what I depend on.”

Her daughter cuts in on her brothers’ behalf: “it’s love,” she says. “It truly is. The breakfast program shows them they are cared for and to me that’s love.”

She wants to attend university and is at college for academic upgrading as her Grade 12 year saw her miss too much school.

And one of the complexities of her life is the fortunate happenstance that she is able to seek an academic path out of poverty because of the AAS breakfast program.

With her mother working night shift she has to bring her little brother to school. Breakfast opens the school up at 8 a.m. — an hour early — which allows her time to drop him off and still make it to her own classes by 9 a.m.

“If it wasn’t for that breakfast I couldn’t go to college.”

She laughs when asked what she wants to study in university — criminology.

“I know, I know, but I grew up in the Downtown Eastside and so I think I can specialize in that and hopefully create a positive change.“

For an English assignment this term she wrote How Being Poor is Expensive. For instance, the poor — if they have any credit — find it more expensive and arduous dealing with lenders than those with plenty while “ignorance of a life lived poor is common,” she wrote.

“In a city like Vancouver the rich are complaining about housing prices and the poor are sleeping on the streets.”

Her mother has always worked at entry level jobs including labouring in construction and for a while was earning enough to pay $2,000 a month to rent a Vancouver special — “just one floor” interjects her daughter — and moved her children to a school outside the DTES.

“But we moved back. The school didn’t have a breakfast program and that made a huge difference to me. I couldn’t afford to stay at that school.”

The poor live under the constant stress of knowing they have no resources to absorb emergencies. Any small financial setback is a calamity such as the times she had spent their food money only to see it all wasted.

“There was a terrible infestation of cockroaches once — social housing isn’t the greatest — and we had to get rid of all our food. Another time the fridge broke down twice in a month and all our food went bad.”

And there have been times when through sickness or misfortune she lost a job. It happened after the fire.

“I’ve had a lot of personal hardships. Sometimes it was impossible for me to work when I was advocating for my son to get the care he needed and going to the hospital every day. I was pinching pennies and had to depend on the breakfast program because my income was so low. It made such a huge difference to us.”

At times she and her daughter have been reduced to collecting bottles and beer cans so they could buy milk. And they have relied on the food bank and sought out free dinners — though finding “safe spaces” in the neighbourhood where they could eat a meal untroubled was difficult

For those struggling to stay housed and feed themselves on marginal incomes or social assistance that’s how it’s done. Pride is an extravagance, resilience is more useful.

“You have to do what you have to do. But none of this is about getting handouts it’s about finding support when you need it and that’s different,” she says.

“I’ve always worked really hard for my kids but at times there’s nothing wrong with getting help from the community when you have to.

“Yes, there might be people who could work and don’t …”

“But who wants to sit around and be poor,” says her daughter completing the sentence.

By Gerry Bellett (

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