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What I learned distributing care packages during New Years

By Warren Kang

This blog post was originally published here.

There is a spark of humanity in each of us.

This New Year, a few friends and I made 260 care packages containing socks, sandwiches, and snacks. We fought through pouring rain to hand them out to the homeless. I stumbled through puddles, squinting through my perpetually foggy glasses as water seeped through a jacket I once considered waterproof.

What drove me was knowing these temporary inconveniences are an unavoidable aspect of life for those on the street. I live in Vancouver, a beautiful city with an unacceptable level of social inequality. A few city blocks separate the widespread poverty of the Downtown Eastside from the relative prosperity of the rest of Vancouver.

Social issues and COVID-19 collide

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on these differences and the fragility of our current institutions for supporting those in need. Social distancing to the majority of the population spells a minor inconvenience. For people without a secure housing arrangement, it means drastically reduced capacity in indoor soup kitchens and other facilities. It means reduced spots in shelters and more nights on the street.

In Vancouver specifically, the increase of COVID-19 cases in BC forced the month-long closure of many volunteering efforts and facilities that help the homeless, including the soup kitchen I volunteer at. It’s frustrating to not meet friends and family, but ignoring lockdown measures have consequences for social work and by extension people on the street.

In recognition of this, I led a volunteer project to distribute care packages in the Downtown Eastside. In previous years I led volunteer projects during the holiday season and sometimes in the spring as well. However, this New Year was especially difficult. I scrambled to find youth volunteers amidst the surge in COVID-19 cases. My brother, a friend from university and the younger brother of a childhood friend were the only ones able to show.

Sandwich ingredients and other supplies

Making and distributing care packages

In anticipation for the day ahead, my brother and I spent hours the night before New Year’s Day slicing tomatoes and placing mandarin, socks, chocolates and granola bars into the paper bags. We met with the other volunteers at 9am the next morning at Potter’s Place, a soup kitchen I volunteer at which I borrowed for the project.

Sandwich making and Care package contents

We worked non-stop putting together sandwiches and packing them into bags. Despite the small size of the group, we were able to finish making the care packages by the early afternoon.

Making and bagging sandwiches

We were ready to hit the streets. As we headed out, holding garbage bags full of packages, the rain began coming down in earnest. There were hundreds of packages to give out, but they were gone within an hour.

We did not venture outside of a two block radius from the soup kitchen — there were people sitting inside tents and under awnings, but most of them stood in the rain, with nowhere else to go.

Everything packed up

Countless people thanked us enthusiastically for coming out. Others pointed us to where we should go to hand out more. One woman told me to try putting a thin layer of detergent on my foggy glasses. Small moments like these never fail to inspire me.

Even in times of intense struggle, people in the Downtown Eastside are resiliently human.

Why we volunteer

Unfortunately, too many of the people I know avoid the Downtown Eastside with a passion. When I was looking for volunteers, some expressed apprehension about the homeless, categorizing them as dangerous drug addicts who should be avoided.

It’s easy to judge people on the street, but behind every face I saw on New Year’s Day was a bad decision, an unhealthy home environment, a poor choice in friends, or a myriad of other factors.

Anyone can become homeless, so no one should consider themselves better than those on the street.

In a community, we have a responsibility to help each other. Other people’s suffering is a sign that we need to, and must, do better.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; … never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” — John Donne

I would like to thank TakingITGlobal, the Government of Canada, and Canada Service Corps for generously supporting this project. With very few options for finding funding in the face of COVID-19 related restrictions, the project could not have happened without their support.

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