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Downtown Eastsiders journey south for free breakfast

A large group of disheveled people waited recently at a downtown Vancouver SkyTrain station for a ride east to Collingwood…

By Evan Duggan , in City Featured , on October 29, 2009 Tags: , , ,

A large group of disheveled people waited recently at a downtown Vancouver SkyTrain station for a ride east to Collingwood neighbourhood. They smoked cigarettes and rubbed their arms trying to keep warm.

A couple of them wore backpacks or carried grocery bags stuffed with their belongings.

Breakfast at Collingwood Neighbourhood House attracts roughly 70 impoverished Vancouver residents to Joyce Street.
Breakfast at Collingwood Neighbourhood House attracts roughly 70 impoverished Vancouver residents.

They represent a community on the move, and this is a Saturday ritual. Only 70 of them would get to eat a hot breakfast, and they worried about arriving late only to be turned away.

“Who the hell wants to eat soup everyday,” said one, referring to his options while they waited for a delayed train.

Collingwood Neighbourhood House draws a regular base of roughly 70 impoverished Vancouver residents to Joyce Street every Saturday morning – offering showers and a hot breakfast.

The program attracts people who cannot afford to live in the area, but instead commute from the Downtown Eastside, where many live in single-occupancy apartments or on the street.

Migrating to Collingwood

The train finally arrived just moments before dawn. The group squeezed into a suffocating car, full of delayed passengers heading out of the city.

The hungry riders attracted little attention in the train while a noisy group of teenagers discussed the previous night’s festivities. The kids talked about heading out to New Westminster, and going to McDonalds for breakfast.

After signing in at the neighbourhood house, the group – mostly men – congregated in the foyer, sipping bitter coffee, pleased to be out of the cold. Some of the visitors sifted through second-hand clothes, while others chatted with volunteers. The gathering mingled as if at a somber cocktail party.

They formed a queue and each received two pancakes and two hard-boiled eggs. In the simple dining room that smelled of cigarettes and coffee, volunteers provided toast, cereal and juice.

One person wandered around looking for syrup. The atmosphere calmed as they enthusiastically ate their food.

Finding food in Vancouver

Kenny Gill isn’t a regular, but dropped by because his “stomach told him to.” Gill lives in the Downtown Eastside where he gets by on government support.

He is struggling more than usual due to an electrical burn from two months ago that nearly took his life. He pulled up his shirt to expose jarring burns across his torso, and his arms.

Kenny Gill enjoys the break from the Downtown Eastside lifestyle
Kenny Gill enjoys the break from the Downtown Eastside lifestyle

“It’s the attitude,” said Gill. It’s hard to tell who is working and who isn’t.” He appreciates that there is no religious affiliation at the neighbourhood house like with other food programs, and he enjoys the quality of food.

Craig Huntinghawk often travels from his one-room apartment in the Downtown Eastside to Collingwood.

“These people have good things to say,” said Huntinghawk. “It’s a positive environment. They don’t turn anybody away by how they look or the colour of their skin.”

The breakfast program is five years old with a capacity of 70 servings. Coordinator, Jo-Anne Stephens said that the winter brings in over 100 hungry people resulting in many receiving only a take-away sandwich.

Only 22 per cent of visitors live in Collingwood, while 30 per cent who are “well enough to make the trip,” migrate weekly from the Downtown Eastside. Most of the others have lived in the area or maintain family connections there.

The well-known Union Gospel Mission, located downtown at 616 East Cordova Street, also offers daily meals. It often faces a shortage of space and struggles to keep up with weekend demand.  Derek Weiss, spokesman for the mission, said that the cost of staple foods is rising at the same time that need in the community increases.

Despite serving lunches, dinners and evening bread lines, the UGM does not offer a weekend breakfast at its downtown location.

In Collingwood, the popular breakfast winded down. The dining hall emptied save for a few enjoying the warmth, and one young man passed out with his head on the table beside his empty plate. Most visitors wandered out to the front yard and savored their final coffee.

Breakfast finished by 9 a.m. The morning grew warmer, and Kenny Gill decided to head into Burnaby for the day. Others moved off into the neighbourhood in search of empties.

Most of the visitors, stomachs full, had already made their way back to the SkyTrain and migrated back to the reality of life downtown.

Huntinghawk, an experienced carpenter, said that this breakfast program is positive, but what he really needs is money for tools.

“I’m looking at myself right now, look at how dirty I am,” said Huntinghawk. “Next job I get, I’m keeping it. I’m not going to get up and walk away like I did before.”