An initiative to help residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) that has its roots in the Bonaparte Band near Cache Creek will be celebrating its fifth anniversary in January 2021, but will look a little different, and is hoping to get support from people around the province.
The Helping Our Urban K’wséltkten (Family) Indigenous feast (HOUK) has, for the last four years, provided Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents of the DTES with a hot meal, traditional First Nations food such as moose stew, and essentials like warm socks and gloves every January. However, Johnny Perry — a Bonaparte Band member who has, for many years, worked for Vancouver Native Housing, and is one of the event’s co-founders — says that the fifth annual feast has had to adapt to the challenges presented by COVID-19.
Usually the organizers hire the Woodwards atrium on Hastings Street for a drop-in, sit-down dinner, but they knew that couldn’t happen in 2021.
“We were a little leery about doing a feast and getting people together,” he explains, adding that the cost of the atrium rental, table rental, and insurance was also a factor. Former Bonaparte Kukpi7 (Chief) Ryan Day — another of the feast’s founders — suggested that they think outside the box and take it to the streets instead.
“It’s about connecting with people, and we can do it safely on the street and still reach people. We’ll be handing out bags of goodies, whether that be traditional foods, toiletries, or warm clothes. They’ll get a bag of sweet treats and at least one voucher for a meal at the Evelyn Saller Centre.”
The centre, on the outskirts of the DTES, is subsidized by the City of Vancouver, and Perry says it’s one of the hubs of the Downtown Eastside.
“People can do free laundry there, get haircuts, get meals. Dinner, for example, is soup or salad, entrée, dessert, and coffee or tea, all for $2. With just three toonies, you can feed three people.”
Perry and others have been raising funds throughout the summer to purchase meal vouchers for DTES residents.
“Over the summer, when COVID-19 first hit, we said ‘We have to do something for our people; we can’t let them hang out until January when we do the feast.’ The need is all year, not just at Christmas. We took donations and were able to raise more than $6,000 and put that towards meal vouchers, bottles of water, and snacks. It came in really handy.”
Perry explains how simple things like water and fresh fruit are appreciated by DTES residents.
“They don’t have the money to go grocery shopping, so handing out fresh fruit is huge. People say ‘I haven’t had berries in so long.’ Raspberries are a luxury for people. And there are a limited number of water fountains in the DTES, especially with COVID-19, so people really appreciated bottles of water.
“And people are really excited about the meal vouchers. When we were giving them out in the summer, people would say ‘This is for me?’ They were really touched.”
The focus has now turned to the January feast, and what that will look like in practical terms. Donations of traditional foods are down this year, but Perry was back at Bonaparte in August and canned peaches, as well as more than 100 jars of salmon, which is one of his contributions this year. Day chopped and split wood and did a draw, with the winner getting the firewood delivered, and raised $1,000 toward meal vouchers.
“That was great, and gave us a little push. I know people want to donate, but they need to take care of their families first. I get that. It’s been challenging for us this year, because people are obviously not in a great financial state. Things have changed, so we do what we can and keep pushing forward.
“Now’s not the time to give up on our folks. They need the love and kindness right now, and with everyone doing their part we’ll get there.”
Perry says that something as simple as donations of warm socks and gloves demonstrate that love and kindness. “Those are two things we really need. The demand is really great at this time of year.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, he says there were fears that COVID-19 was going to hit the DTES hard. “We were expecting the worst. It didn’t hit like we thought it would, but in October we started to see the numbers spiking a bit. DTES people carry around a lot of pain and trauma, but it’s really not what people have predicted and thought. People are still being taken care of, there are lots of testing centres and hand sanitizer, masks are being given out. You’d think people don’t care, but everyone is wearing masks. They’re following the rules as well and doing the best they can.”
He says the fifth HOUK event will probably take place around the weekend of Jan. 16, over several days in different areas of the DTES. “I’ve connected with some great people who will contribute to the fundraiser and drop off socks and gloves. It typically happens at the last minute, so I’m not worried. We’re going to do what we can; that’s all we can do.
“It’s been really challenging for everyone, but there are lessons in there about taking care of each other more. That’s what it really comes down to. We’re all in the same boat. It’s not going to look like it did in previous years, but we’ll do the best we can.”
All donations received will go to purchase $2 meal vouchers for the Evelyn Saller Centre. There is a GoFundMe page at https://bit.ly/39P81Ua, or e-Transfers (preferred, as there is no commission) can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.