Something as simple as a cough can spark fear, then violence, then isolation.
Something as complex as a cough can mean a range of conditions: a cold, a choking hazard, asthma, an allergy, water down the wrong pipe, a too heavy hit from a pipe, a cigarette, cancer, a chest infection, a flu, COVID-19.
COVID-19 seems to be spilling from everyone’s lips, while we simultaneously try to build dams to stop the spray of saliva. In due diligence, the Artist in Residency program has come to a premature end. We need to flatten the curve, especially within our most marginalized communities.
The program was in a state of transition. After weeks of meetings between John Howard Society Lower Mainland and the Community Arts Council of Vancouver, we collectively agreed that it was time for the in-person weekly workshop series to come to a close. March 10, I informed our participants that due to changing structures, and limited capacity, my official time with them on Tuesdays would be ending on March 31. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the entire team from the John Howard Society, and the Community Arts Council of Vancouver, my predecessor. and all the guest artists, participants, and supporters who have made this project possible.
The plan is that I am taking on greater leadership of the Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival. I would still be involved with the John Howard Society participants, helping to develop a group show for the summer festival. It was a somber moment, but the plan was for JHS to continue weekly gatherings so that the participants continued to have an opportunity to gather, make art, and nurture the relationships they had built.
Within days, the social distancing measures were put into effect.The week prior, I had fallen ill. Doctors are confident that I didn’t have COVID-19. Whatever flu I did have left me with ongoing breathing problems, and a congested cough. This isn’t new. With my medical history, this is all due to asthma, which always spikes after I get over an illness. Doctors say that I have post-infection congestion. It is likely to last until May. I’m not being moved forward for testing. They’re not worried. I’m not worried, but I’d be lying if I didn’t have that nagging voice in the back of my mind. It’s slightly reassuring that I have barely left my home, and that no one I’ve been in contact with has developed any symptoms.
My biggest concern was for the folks at John Howard. Our participants are among the population at greatest risk for infection. We have so many older clientele, many with long existing health conditions that mean they are immunocompromised. Some are addicted to substance use, some are homeless, some require a great deal of in-person support. I was so proud of the team at the CSO who made the early call to shut down the office. I know it was a very challenging decision to make, but I applaud their foresight.
With the onslaught of the virus and the fear from very real dangers, there’s been so many different perspectives that have flooded the internet. I think it speaks to our privileges. However academically, sociologically, anthropologically, post modern way folks want to discuss the news, the reality is that they have access to platforms where they can do that. News is reaching them. Facts, fiction, science, propaganda are all delivered through the same channels. But recently, after closing the downtown eastside open air market, photos have been broadcast showing members of the dtes community still gathering, en masse, with no social distancing. The information being spread is inconsistent and limited. Frontline workers are overwhelmed. Front line staff are recognizing that for the vendors and patrons of the markets, that is their primary access to funds, and drugs.
A university friend of mine, Graham Williams, lives in the area, and has been posting on his channels. The general consensus is that not enough is being done to address the residents of the area.
It was just recently, that the city green lit a ‘safe supply of drugs’ program- https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/vancouver-dtes-residents-covid-march-26-1.5511149
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I worked across Metro Vancouver. Mondays- New Westminster, Tuesdays- John Howards Society Lower Mainland in Mt Pleasant, Wednesdays- Delta. Thursdays- the entirety of the North Shore region, Fridays- DTES, Saturdays- Kitsilano, and Sundays- Coquitlam. It’s hard to make a sustainable living as a contract artist, barring the commute, I did like seeing so many different people. The funny thing is that I would see my participants in most of these areas too. We’d run into each other on the skytrain, on the bus, etc.
I often saw Frank at New Westminster station, and we’d commit to seeing each other the next day at John Howard. Timothy would often be coming from the movies at Metrotown Mall, because he lived near Crystal Mall. Monique would commute from Surrey to join us.
Several of the participants live near ‘Main & Hastings’ (the DTES), or as some refer to it as ‘Pain & Wastings’. I am grateful that most, if not all, of the service users I’ve had the privilege to work with have outreach workers that can connect with them during these challenging times.
Connection is the only cure for isolation. Until the time of this blog post, the term was ‘social distancing.’ The reality is that we should not be anti-social, we should absolutely be social, and stay connected. The key practice, and current term is ‘physical distancing.’ It’s an important distinction.
It also resonates with my reflection on my time at John Howards. Though my visits were weekly, over the course of 15 months, it was unsurprising how deeply connected I became with the space. I remember my early visits, not knowing protocols, worried I’d say the wrong thing, not sure where to put my things, all the naivate that comes with new projects. I remember my early, internalized prejudices, and fears that quickly dispelled. It’s funny, I mentioned how I’d often see participants outside of the John Howard Society. I’m not sure if I’ve articulated this in the past, but those interactions aren’t always initially positive. There is a hardness, a lack of recognition, we may see each other right away. What happens is if I choose to engage, they may be armored up, ready to defend themselves, so used to being treated poorly. And then the recognition sets in, the eyes soften, and if it’s a good day, we can have a great conversation. It’s one of the big reasons why this work is so relevant, and impactful.
This blog series has often been the means in which we report on activities, general progress, and aspirations. To maintain the privacy and dignity of our participants, I don’t often go too deep, so to maintain anonymity. But on a more somber note, when we do hear stories of how challenging life can be for our participants, it’s unfortunate to learn about the daily struggles that our people go through. Being someone who has experienced homelessness, discrimation, and violence, I can recall most of the big stories. The memories of key incidents that fundamentally changed me. I recognize that I am now deeply privileged, having sufficient employment, housing, and a strong support system. When we are able to share stories, learning about how severe the daily challenges are for folks, it’s been heartbreaking. It challenges self reflection, and to really consider what we’re trying to accomplish.
These challenges also speak to resilience. I believe this is what many of the outreach workers get to witness. There is a powershift when a participant actively fights to overcome a barrier. There is a deeply rooted pride that is shared when healing happens. After experiencing a history of oppression, of trying to exist within a system that does not support you, it requires incredible resilience to stay vocal, be visible, and struggle to keep existing. It requires extreme fortitude to pick yourself up after a setback.
As a community-engaged artist, I wanted to provide opportunities to foster this resilience, celebrate the wins, and simply be together as a collective of humans who are struggling. As a poet and storyteller, I learned so much on what it means to tell our stories. Sometimes as a writer, I don’t get to see the reactions of my audiences. Validation is too light of a word to describe the sense of embodiment and presence we all found when creating. We all had the privilege to be witness for each other, to see each other without armor, and hold each other as audiences.
I hope that we will be able to share stories in person. I hope this work has a long-lasting impact on the participants. I hope we can share this work with many service organizations. I hope that we can be a supportive audience, bearing witness for each other, because performing online, into the void, feels so lonely. It’s like being on stage, and not knowing if the audience is out there watching, until somebody coughs.