‘I have learned how to love again,’ wrote one community member in response to a question of what they’d learned during the pandemic

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“Human connection is vital to surviving, and then thriving.”

Those words are among scores of messages that have been scrawled by community members of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on scrap pieces of cardboard and gathered for display at Cardboard Project 3.0, an online gallery and upcoming speaker series.

The gallery’s anonymous messages were written in response to a single question intended to tease out the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on people in the neighbourhood: “What have you learned about connection and community in the past year?”

The idea for the third annual event, held virtually this year for the first time, came from Christina Wong, executive director of Employ to Empower, a registered charity that provides Downtown Eastside residents access to entrepreneurial resources and that is hosting the event.

“Growing up, I always walked past people who face homelessness who have cardboard signs,” Wong said. “It often says spare change, or need food or need a job (and) taught me a person’s needs, but it didn’t really share the character or the story of the person.”

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The project, which asks community members a different question each year, became Wong’s way to learn about and eventually share people’s stories.

When asked to describe what themes had emerged in response to this year’s pandemic-related question, Wong thought for some time and offered three words: Perseverance, resourcefulness and connection.

Mark Defreitas and associate Patrick Price in Vancouver on May 11, 2021.
Mark Defreitas and associate Patrick Price in Vancouver on May 11, 2021. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Some of the responses about what people learned over the past year are personal: “To b (sic.) independent,” one person wrote. “I have learned how to love again,” wrote another. Others are encouraging: “We all lean on each other,” wrote one. Most are relatable: “Learned to have fun at home,” another wrote.

This year’s event includes three “talk show sessions” featuring community members.

The first will examine what can lead to a divided community and what can help to foster connection. The second looks at the realities and the issues of the neighbourhood from the viewpoints of residents and politicians. The third looks at the realities of being on the front lines of a pandemic in the Downtown Eastside.

Among those slated to speak is Mark Defreitas, a co-founder of Crap Trapper, a small business that removes human waste from the streets of the community.

Mark Defreitas is a co-founder of Crap Trapper, a small business that removes human waste from the streets of the community.
Mark Defreitas is a co-founder of Crap Trapper, a small business that removes human waste from the streets of the community. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Defreitas got the idea for the business after reading visitors’ reviews of Chinatown on Tripadvisor. Many of the reviews mentioned bad smells that stemmed from a scarcity of publicly accessible toilets in the area.

“I saw an opportunity,” Defreitas said. “If you have bad publicity like that, of course nobody’s going to come and spend money. … I don’t want Chinatown to die. It’s my neighbourhood. It’s my home.”

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Defreitas got in touch with Wong and got his business up and running soon afterwards.

Asked what the pandemic had been like for him, Defreitas spoke of isolation.

“I eat at a soup kitchen once in a while. We all go down there and sit at a table, and for a lot of people it’s the only time they get to interact with each other and be social,” he said. “Now that COVID’s happened, that’s not happening. We all line up, we get our bag lunch and we go.”

Defreitas said he has also had many friends die over the last year because they were using drugs alone rather than with other people because of fear of contracting COVID-19.

He said he wanted to see the pandemic come to an end as soon as possible. But he didn’t want restrictions to be loosened too early, fearing it would cause the virus to come right back again.

The cardboard messages can be viewed at cardboardproject.com and the speakers can can be watched through the day Saturday. Tickets are by donation.

mrobinson@postmedia.com


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