Story by Richard Young
August 2019, Chinese Cultural Centre Courtyard
“Good morning! How’s it going? Everything OK? I hope you guys were warm enough last night.”
“Yeah, we’re OK.”
“Would you like to know where to get a free coffee this morning? Here’s some information on where to get free meals, clothing, and shelter.”
“You’re welcome, it’s part of our job to see that you are doing all right. Just so you know, we are also trained in overdose response.”
“Oh that’s good.”
“We also work with the shop owners here in Chinatown. We help them with picking up needles and keeping their doorways clear and clean for business. Could I ask you guys to move out of the way so business can open their doors for customers and tourists? We’ll give you a few minutes to wake up and pack up, but we’ll check in on you in a few minutes.”
“Sure, that’s fine. Thanks for being so nice about it.”
“You’re welcome. Stay safe.”
Such is a typical encounter with urban campers. They bed down at night in the doorways of Downtown Eastside businesses, looking for some shelter and a safe place to sleep. We try to show them the respect and compassion they deserve.
We are the Chinatown Stewards. We work for a new initiative called the Chinatown Community Stewardship Program, created last summer by Embers Eastside Works in partnership with the Chinatown Business Improvement Association and the City of Vancouver. Started in July 2019, this program was intended to create a more safe, harmonious and inclusive community in and around Chinatown.
As Chinatown Stewards, we offer a variety of services, such as chatting with tourists—for example, helping them navigate the city and offering recommendations about places to go. We received training on the history of Chinatown in order to answer any basic questions.
One of the most important services we provide as stewards is liaising between the shopkeepers and those who are homeless, using drugs or loitering. We are not the police. We are not security personnel. We are diplomats.
We deal with situations in a calm, respectful, polite and compassionate manner, knowing that these people have every right to be in Chinatown. We may suggest that campers help out the businesses by moving out of their doorways. We often ask them to leave anything they don’t want and we’ll help tidy it up for them. For the most part, they cooperate and move along.
So here’s what we have achieved: the shopkeepers get a break from having to deal with a stressful situation, the campers get a break from dealing with the police all the time and the police department has one less situation to deal with.
Maryna Skinner (below), a staff member at Kool Thing Vintage on Columbia Street, welcomes the stewardship teams—easily identified in bright, fluorescent jackets and vests—in the mornings.
“If programs like this weren’t around, things would be very different,” Skinner says.
She notes the store’s younger workers can find it difficult to engage with some of the folks in the Downtown Eastside, and the Chinatown Stewards help smooth interactions and forge conversations and relationships.
“It’s wonderful,” she says.
This is why I believe our program has a positive impact on the Chinatown community. Another positive thing about this program is how it helps those of us who are working as stewards. Most of us live in the Downtown Eastside. All of us are on low incomes or on some form of income assistance.
Through this program, we get paid a decent wage and we work two four-hour shifts a week, getting paid weekly. It keeps food on the table and months don’t seem as long between cheque days. It is a win-win situation for everyone.
I know from personal experience that the Chinatown community shopkeepers are pleased at what we do. Many have thanked us for our services. Some see us pass by and bring us a cold drink on a hot day, or a hot drink on a cold day. I have received fresh fruit from others to go with our lunches. Passers-by on the street say, “Thank you for what you do.”
The benefits extend to us stewards, as well.
Grace (below with Richard) works two four-hour shifts a week, often with me, and says she has never felt so confident.
“I have learned teamwork and how to work with other people—especially in difficult situations,” she says. “It’s been a powerful push to do better.”
I’m touched that she calls me a “very gentle” teacher.
“I’ve learned a lot… [you’re] like a brother,” Grace says. “We’re like family.”
Of course we’re all part of a bigger family, Embers Eastside Works, at 57 E. Hastings St. Embers helps people find part-time and flexible work, access training and support and connect to their community.
Recently, we received some good news. Our program was to have come to an end in December 2019, but because of the positive work we have done and the difference we’ve made, the Chinatown Community Stewardship Program has received funding to continue for at least another year.
“The funding has been secured through the City of Vancouver's Chinatown Transformation Team to continue the program until December 2020,” says Austin Lui, programming and outreach director for Embers. “The funding will include continuing to employ 15 Chinatown Stewards, operational costs, training and capacity-building opportunities, and an evaluation of the program. We look forward to continue working with the Chinatown community to make Chinatown a safe, vibrant and inclusive community.”
Thank you for your support and see you on the streets.
—with files from Paula Carlson
In addition to working as a Chinatown Steward, Richard Young is a Megaphone vendor and member of Megaphone’s Speakers Bureau, which aims to eliminate stigma around substance use.