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How one panhandler sees life on the streets of Vancouver

"Everyone understands that there is a housing shortage in Vancouver and ultimately there will be people in my situation," he said.

The Vancouver Care Project is the work of 17-year-old Rachel Way, who engages with some of Vancouver’s most vulnerable residents facing poverty and homelessness. Each week she shares the story of one person she has met.

The purpose of this project is to share the stories of the lives of those living and working in and around Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, as well as the homeless and marginalized population of Metro Vancouver. By creating a virtual story book, the goal is to end the stigma that surrounds the area and raise awareness to the struggles the people of the area face.

Willie: No one seems surprised to see panhandlers in Vancouver

 Willie (Photo by Rachel Way/Vancouver Care Project)Willie (Photo by Rachel Way/Vancouver Care Project)

Walking along Burrard Street, I was in search of someone who appeared to be homeless that I could talk to. Unsurprisingly, it was incredibly easy to find someone. It seemed as if there was somebody on the corner of every block who was down on their luck and panhandling for some money.

As easy as it was to find someone, it wasn't as easy to find someone that I could approach, as many of them were busy at their work. When initiating conversations with people I see on the street, I often try to approach people who don't seem to be actively panhandling as that is there income and livelihood, and is often the source of their food for the day.

I came across Willie, a man with a kind smile, sitting quietly outside the Burrard SkyTrain station. He sat with his friend's dog, all of his belongings, and his hat out--in case anyone wanted to drop some change into it. Willie shared that he came to Vancouver in in search of work in 1978 from New Brunswick. After leaving school in the ninth grade, he hit the road two days after on a trip across Canada, his final stop being Vancouver.

When I asked Willie when it was that he became homeless, he said it was when he finally gave up searching for a job. He explained how he had put his resume in at many places, but very few seemed to be interested in hiring him. After having his phone stolen he was left unsure if any places were interested at all. Eventually he got tired of feeling let down and gave up his search and resorted to a life on the streets.

Now his day-to-day life consists of sitting, watching the world go by and quietly panhandling. He likes to think that there are three types of panhandlers: the aggressive ones, the boisterous ones, and the quiet ones. Willie identifies himself as a quiet one. He said that watching the hustle and bustle of downtown Vancouver can be quite comical, pathetic, and everything in between. But he finds people are generally quite understanding of his situation. Nobody really seems to surprised to see him sitting there.

"Everyone understands that there is a housing shortage in Vancouver and ultimately there will be people in my situation," he said.

Willie shared with me that he has one friend that he stays with and the two of them sleep in a SkyTrain station, which is a spot he describes as generally pretty safe and that he is grateful to have found. His one piece of advice to my generation is probably pretty similar to that of your parents: "Stay in school!" Willie added: "It probably would have made things easier for me."

I must say I really enjoyed talking with Willie. He was so kind and friendly and it really brightened up my day talking to him. Willie's story certainly is one of struggle and being stuck but also making the most out of a bad situation, as his smile and kindness did not seem to waver.

This post originally appeared on The Vancouver Care Project and is edited republished here with permission from the author.