She sleeps on the streets, her head resting on a worn out cream leather handbag, its contents spill from the broken zip, an array of dirty clothing. What do you do when you cannot look at a face? There is a homelessness of soul in the ungodly manner of those who walk past her, striving only to see a glimpse of her bare bony arched feet that bleed into the blisters and callouses of a life barely lived. In the background street music fills a silence, drumming like a hammer to the nails of a coffin as a guitar plays. There are an estimated 3700 homeless in Vancouver and Courtney. 17, is just one young homeless woman. In front of her a sign reads, "To proud to prostitute, to honest to steal."
In Canada, there are between 200,000-300,000 homeless people. Common public opinion appears to be that the leading cause of this is substance abuse, alcoholism or mental illness and that the homeless have only themselves to blame. The truth according to statistics gathered by many organisations around Canada is that the lack of effort to end poverty is the leading cause, which begs the question, doesn’t society have a duty to help the poor and impoverished made homeless?
Courtney is awake, she seems oblivious to the traffic of people whizzing past and the coffee in paper cups placed beside her. She appears to be staring at nothing and the world stares back with an infinity of scowls among a few kind faces. Isnt it sad how many people consider the homeless as a burden and an eyesore? I approach her,and she looks at me as though she wants to speak, then quickly looks away, her eyes glazed with tears staring across the street to a restaurant. "What's wrong?" It occurs to me seconds after that everything is wrong.
"I heard they were giving away free food over there, but they won't let me in because I'm homeless and because I have no shoes!" she explains. What makes Courtney’s story all the more unfair is that Courtney lives in front of a shoe store, In fact as we speak the shop owner comes out to ask her to move. "Move away. You’re affecting my business!" he callously demands, before returning to serve a well-dressed lady who doubtlessly already has numerous pairs of designer heels safely stored at home.
According to a Canadian Government report on homelessness, "Thousands of children run away from home each year in Canada." These street children and adolescents are often victims of sexual assaults or physical or psychological abuse at home. The streets however can often be a worse alternative. Courtney slept through winter in a layer of jackets and no sleeping bag or blankets. She has the worn down look of someone twice her age. As she hungrily consumes the cake I got her from the local coffee shop she starts to tell me about her life, she doesn't stop eating. A pigeon joins us to pick up the crumbs. "That man, he moves me everyday, he doesn't care all he cares about is money, I shouldn't stay here I suppose" "If he offered you a pair of shoes, maybe you should!" She laughs in agreement "He won't though!"
A man of Aboriginal descent walks past us, inebriated and hopeless in worn out sneakers then sits on a bench at the bus stop. He looks confused as though he has lost everything and somehow found himself here in the hustle and bustle of modern living. Every time a bus arrives he pretends this is the one, the one that will take him home. Aboriginal people represent only 2% of Vancouver's overall population according to Statistics Canada. However in a 2011 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count one in four homeless people were found to be of Aboriginal ancestry. "Spare any change?" he questions. "Get a job!" Is the reply, someone moves to another seat.
The unemployment rate for Indigenous people in Vancouver is significantly higher than that of non-aboriginals and their total yearly income lower. Aboriginal people and communities are still deeply affected by a loss of cultural identity and the abuse faced in residential schools. These are a people that need respect and understanding, but instead too often face discrimination. It's more difficult to seek employment when you are of Aboriginal descent, especially difficult when homeless. The conditions on the streets invite very little comfort and it is not uncommon for those living in such drab and hopeless conditions to turn to alcohol or illegal substances. For the youth of Aboriginal ancestry or non-aboriginal ancestry the chances of turning to prostitution or theft as a means of survival increases every night they are left to sleep on the streets.
Courtney tells me she arrived here from Saskatchewan over the winter. It was one of those days no one really wants to go outside. She had broken with her parents and come here to live with a illusive Jason 24, she didn't like him anymore, he was trying to persuade her to be a prostitute. "He says I can't live with him the landlord won't like it, anyway he lives in a bad place, I don't want to do anything like that" "Why don't you ask for help to get home ?" Courtney had been refused financial assistance on account of being under the age of 18 and feared to ring her parents, so here she was another statistic. The girl with no shoes.