STORIES FROM THE SIDEWALK: A shopping spree designed for the homeless

By Eddy Boudel Tan

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The founders of the SIDEWALK supper project share stories of the people they meet while feeding the hungry. This week, meet a young woman committed to creating a space where people can give back to the community or take what they need.

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Photo: The Streetstore Vancouver 4.0

As the days get colder and the shops get busier, it’s easy to get caught up in the blizzard of holiday consumption. Swipe. Tap. Gift for Mom. Gift for me. Two-day delivery with Amazon Prime? Sign me up! While many Vancouverites are shopping until they’re afraid to look at their bank statements, hundreds of people in our city don’t even know where they’re going to sleep tonight or how they’re going to stay warm.

Four years ago, the Street Store made it their mission to create a space where the less privileged members of the community could shop—absolutely free. Events now take place in over 4,000 cities around the world.

We caught up with Christina Wong, the enterprising young woman who has brought this mission to the streets of Vancouver. She will host her fourth Street Store event on Sunday, December 17, where people from all walks of life can come together to give back to the community or take what they need.

EDDY: How did you first hear about the Street Store movement, and what inspired you to bring its mission to Vancouver?

CHRISTINA: I learned about the DTES when I was 14. I was scared out of my mind going down to the DTES to hand out care packages with my youth group. I remember asking my youth leader about wearing gloves because I was scared of getting my hands dirty. What she said resonated with me since: “In this community, we treat everyone equally. There is no one person who is better than another. Putting on gloves takes away the dignity from homeless individuals.” That experience was the catalyst towards my compassion towards people in need.

I wanted to do something meaningful, and so I stumbled across the Street Store on my friend’s Facebook page. I gravitated to the concept of giving individuals the freedom of choice to choose what they want and need for themselves. I remember handing out sandwiches in the DTES, and a man kindly declined my offer and said, “You know, I appreciate the gesture, but what I really need is a clean haircut and shower right now.”

EDDY: With this being your fourth consecutive event, what inspires you to keep going?

CHRISTINA: Witnessing youth come from high schools to volunteer and in turn challenging all stereotypes around homelessness. This year, I spoke at an elementary school about homelessness and 5th graders asked to volunteer at the event.  It has always been a goal of mine to teach compassion and the concept of giving to younger kids, as learning the value of giving back can inspire future generations to make an impact.

Meaningful conversations also further my drive to continue giving back. The Street Store allows us to understand people at their core and sometimes it takes one conversation to change a person’s perspective. If we have wealth, we have the responsibility to take care of our community.

EDDY: What are some misconceptions about homelessness that you would like to dispel?

CHRISTINA: The media likes to magnify the stereotypes—drugs and alcohol. This is not to say that these factors don’t exist, but more so to be aware of other factors such as invisible diseases (depression), uncontrollable and unforeseen life circumstances, and systemic issues (not having enough income for housing). There is so much depth to the homelessness crisis we have in Vancouver and it’s important to be open-minded to all of the causes. I highly encourage individuals to do some research and understand the factors that cause homelessness before making any generalizations—nobody likes to be judged.

EDDY: From your experience, how supportive have Vancouverites been with this cause?

CHRISTINA: I used to believe that asking for help was a sign of weakness, but after receiving an overwhelming amount of support from the community, I realize that asking for help is a sign of strength to work together as a team to help our community. When I hosted my first Street Store in 2014, I expected to have eight volunteers, two plastic tables, and a bunch of donations. That year, we received over 1,000 donations and had over twenty volunteers. To date, we have been able to garner 10,000 pieces of donations from our local community.

My heart feels so full when I think about this. It’s amazing how one volunteer experience for one hour at the Street Store can shift a person’s outlook. I had one youth who only wanted to come for a couple hours, but then stayed for five. This youth now comes back every year. These moments are so important because it’s living proof that being curious and open can lead to positive behavioural change.

EDDY: What do you think is the first (or next) step towards solving the homelessness problem?

CHRISTINA: Employment. My long-term goal is to help find employment for individuals in need. When we give employment, people feel empowered to make our community a better place. There is no one solution to solving homelessness.

EDDY: How can our readers help the cause?

CHRISTINA: Eye contact. I challenge everyone to question the status quo—make eye contact with someone who’s asking you for change. Even if you don’t have anything, acknowledgement can go a long way.

Strike up a conversation with someone. Sometimes all people need is an empathetic, non-judgemental ear. One act of kindness can go a long way. Even better—it’s free!

The Street Store takes place on Sunday, December 17 from 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM at 62 E. Hastings St. If you’d like more information on how you could help, take a look HERE or email streetstorevan@gmail.com.

About SIDEWALK supper project: We’re a group of West Enders bringing the warmth of our kitchen to the streets, feeding the homeless with home-cooked meals and sharing their stories along the way. 100% non-profit. 100% love.

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