It wasn’t the provincial state of emergency that alerted homeless residents of Vancouver’s Fairview neighbourhood about the severity of the pandemic.
Rather, it was the closure of resources they depended on, like the McDonald’s on West Broadway and 24-hour gas station washrooms.
Of course they had heard of COVID-19, but didn’t feel that governments would be helping them in any meaningful way.
“You’re just this spectator watching another big event pass by. You’re not in the parade,” said Stanley Woodvine, 59, a resident of the west side area who’s been homeless for 16 years.
Woodvine watched local business improvement associations like the one in Fairview fund murals on boarded-up storefronts, “apparently to distract people from the fact that it looked like we were entering a new Great Depression.”
He watched the city fund public plazas welcoming people to drink alcohol outside. Meanwhile that summer, Woodvine’s friends were stopped by the police for opening a beer in an alley and were asked to pour it out.
“Slack was being cut to the groups that society cares about,” said Woodvine. He’s particularly upset about security asking rough sleepers to leave private property when that’s all they can do to self-isolate.
Of course, a big Vancouver issue like homelessness didn’t go entirely ignored in an emergency. But the problem for west siders like Woodvine was that aid was centred on the downtown, where the city opened a few temporary washrooms for hygiene purposes.
When the big bucks for Vancouver came from the federal government in October, $51.5 million to fund urgent housing needs, the mayor only mentioned downtown neighbourhoods by name.
“No homeless worth considering on the west side or south of False Creek?” Woodvine tweeted at Mayor Kennedy Stewart.
The ironic thing is that there are actually porta-potties aplenty in Fairview, standing on the edges of its many construction sites. A new subway is coming to this part of the city, and a building boom has begun.
But the porta-potties offer no relief to homeless residents like Woodvine. Anyone looking to use them during the pandemic who’s not a construction worker is met with a locked door or an order to go away.
In the summer, Woodvine spotted one of his peers, having no other options, squatting over a drain.
As businesses slowly reopened, some washrooms became available. Though without a purchase, a homeless person is at the mercy of the cashier. With so many public washrooms closed, Woodvine worried about a Hepatitis A outbreak like that among San Diego’s homeless population between 2016 and 2018.
“It was linked directly to the lack of public washrooms and handwashing facilities,” he said.
You might remember The Tyee’s interview with Woodvine last year, entitled “Homeless, ‘I’m Living in a Dystopian Sci-Fi.’” That was one month into the pandemic.
As we come up on one year of life with COVID-19, we wanted to check in with Woodvine.
I met him on a recent Friday afternoon at the rare free-to-use washroom in the area: the field house at Granville Park, open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., near the intersection of Fir and West 16th. Woodvine had his trusty bike and trailer with him, which he uses for binning, collecting and returning recyclables to depots for refunds.
The Granville Park washroom is above average, says Woodvine. It’s consistently clean, with reliable hot water and a baseboard heater.
The washroom happens to share a fence with Vancouver Lawn, a 123-year-old private racquet club.
“Every day I’m here I count the number of Teslas in the parking lot. It can reach a high of eight,” said Woodvine. He finds it a fascinating detail about the people who frequent and live in his neighbourhood, a symbol of “I’m rich, but I care.”
Woodvine is a keen observer of the urban environment and how Vancouver’s class divides manifest within it. On his Twitter feed and blog, his writings and pictures chronicle the city’s quieter rhythms, the routines of everyone from cops, to seasonal insects, to the crews who paint road markings and erect fences to keep homeless people off private property.
Life since the pandemic has been a “hamster wheel,” he says, but at least it’s kept him fit. He’s able to handle hills just fine, while other binners huff and puff.
Here are excerpts from his logs during COVID year one, with some added commentary from our conversation, lightly edited for brevity.
March 6, 2020: “Habits installed by being a homeless Vancouver binner/dumpster diver may lessen my risk of catching/transmitting a SARS illness, like COVID-19. Don’t rub my eyes. Don’t lick my fingers. Keep hand-wipe cloth on my trailer. Always have clean napkins. Wash and dry my hands frequently.”
April 17: “What $1,000 buys in the way of instant anti-homeless chain-link fencing! Posts are anchored in asphalt and very wobbly. I guess recyclables are too valuable to be left to poor people now.”
April 20: “Charging my phone at one of three outlets by [Vancouver School Board] offices on 10th. Another homeless peer appeared and sat a ways from me. Finally went to him to ask if I was keeping him from charging. He brightened and said yes. His electric shaver is now charging beside my phone.”
“Very tiny box of wooden matches I binned yesterday.”
April 21: “Had to leave [the school board] Park at 10th to get water for the Canada goose who came up to me and wouldn’t go away. Thinking it may be the life mate of the goose electrocuted on the 1400-block of West Broadway last year.”
April 22: “Seems a little too chilly for typing but who knows? Super hard to find an electrical outlet under cover or any spot out of the rain! Homeless people in Vancouver (bloggers or otherwise) gotta do what they gotta do!”
“Boiled water to make instant ramen while stealing electricity outside a Japanese restaurant only selling online takeaway. Strange days.”
April 23: “Possible Neolithic cave painting found off Laurel and West Broadway!”
July 24: “Only 9 a.m. and I’m busy stealing stuff on Granville. Two weeks ago, I was using a plug outside a 900-block West Broadway building. An exiting employee angrily accused me of theft. I offered them 25 cents to cover the electricity. They stormed off in a huff.”
July 28: “As a Vancouver binner, I’ve dealt up close and personal with swarms of frantic yellowjacket wasps every autumn. They’re attracted to the sugar residue in the cans I collect. I just let ‘em fly around and crawl on me and calmly keep collecting. Never been stung. Lucky I guess.”
Aug. 12: “When this can appeared atop this fence in May, I think, it still bore its label, which identified it as a can of beets. It also had a dent, so I passed it by. Now I pause to watch it slowly rust; marginally more suspenseful than watching paint dry.”
Sept. 10: “Arriving at the Go Green bottle depot in East Vancouver, customers are greeted with: ‘Sorry, no public washrooms.’ So no bathroom break for Vancouver’s street-embedded and homeless binners, even at their bottle depot!”
Sept. 11: “Vancouver is having a Mothtember to remember! Almost every surface of the gas station at Hemlock and West Broadway is covered in looper moths this morning.”
Oct. 1: “All the 20-cent containers [those over a litre] went down to 10 cents. I saw somebody and all their trays were two-litre containers. They might’ve made $10 instead of the $5 now…. Last year, we got the nice increase [some recyclables went up from five cents to 10 cents, the first boost in about two decades] but it’s one step forward, two steps back.”
Oct. 9: “Hey City of Vancouver! Here’s an empty three-storey apartment building in 900-block of West Broadway, that you own! It’s perfect for Fairview homeless such as me. Oh, wait. You evicted everyone so you could demolish it for staging area beside a future Broadway subway station.”
Nov. 17: “Abandoned panhandling sign in the 800-block West Broadway: ‘Do you fear change? Why not leave it here.’ Perhaps too cute by half.”
Nov. 25: “Stopped to briefly pray at the 10th and Birch shrine to the Great Green Squirrel. The world is nuts. Squirrels know nuts. Follow the path of the squirrel!”
Nov. 30: “With a sad heart I report that the indomitable can of beets has disappeared from its perch of at least six months atop a cedar fence in the alley off Heather and 12th. Building has a rather fussy new manager. Nuff said. Consider eating some beets in tribute. RIP.”
Dec. 16: “So much for masks hiding one’s identity. I walk into the McDonald’s on the 1400-block of West Broadway to get morning coffee for the first time in nine months and the staff are like, ho hum, ‘Hi Stanley.’”
Dec. 17: “The colourful whimsy residents of the 100-block of 10th Avenue indulge in.”
Dec. 18: “Missing only its complement of koi fish, here is the decorative and soothing ‘developer’s water garden’ at 2538 Birch St., future site of Jameson Development’s excessively tall, 28-storey residential tower.”
Dec. 24: “While almost everything in Vancouver will be closed Christmas Day, I promise to be open to new things… assuming I have enough electricity and data in my phone to find these things on the Internet while I camp in my parkade. Happy holidays everyone, homeless or otherwise!”
Jan. 5, 2021: “Facemask ‘lost and found’ at 14th and Pine. Cute way to comment/complain about the pandemic of COVID-19-related litter in the Fairview neighbourhood.”
Jan. 8: “The house of car binner in Vancouver’s Fairview neighbourhood. Apparently it was the day to wash their binning garbage bags, which are all hung out on their clothesline in the rain.”
Woodvine, who rides a bike with a trailer, saw many rivals during the pandemic driving cars through alleys to collect recyclables. He noticed some of them appeared to be living in their cars, while others had swanky vehicles.
“It was totally ‘Beverly Hillbillies,’” he said. “A weird manifestation of poverty,” but he understands that more people during the pandemic are looking for extra income.
Recently, some good news. A local realtor and Odd Fellows member read Woodvine’s writing and decided to lend a hand, partnering with the city to open a warming centre in Fairview.
“It’s a big deal,” said Woodvine, considering that there aren’t many such centres outside downtown.
Like many during the pandemic, Woodvine has been reflecting on life in the city and where COVID-19 has left him.
“I don’t have a cushion. My retirement savings is apparently the gold teeth that I have that hasn’t come out yet. I don’t know what that’s worth…. I grew up on the prairies. I knew farmers, and you look after yourself. That’s kind of still how I am. I think I spent the year getting more worried about other people than myself.
“There’s some really basic things that could happen that would utterly disturb the surface tension in my life. My storage locker is in an area where every building is a new development. And that’s the same with my bottle depot. Compared to a lot of people, I have a really good stable sleeping spot. But that could change.
“It’s an interesting situation. You can’t really go on forever, but nothing can go on forever. I should be doing things to move my life forward, but that’s not really happening. One of my former co-workers actually helped me get my birth certificate last year, but I’m not making any progress getting my B.C. ID.
“I’m doing what everybody else is doing, using my money the best I can. I’m not willing to go hungry. I got to make sure that I earn enough money so that I can buy my food. And that’s a daily thing. I’m taking care of my basics.”