I’m sitting with my uncle in the backyard of my mother’s Vancouver home when I first hear why I’ll never fully escape my childhood. It’s the summer I turn nineteen. My uncle holds me captive with stories of the poverty he experienced growing up: running away from home at the age of fourteen, living in a tent by the Fraser River with his younger brother, shoplifting their food, and clothing themselves with whatever they could steal from backyard clotheslines.
I’ve never heard these stories before. I’ve long known my mother and her siblings didn’t have an idyllic childhood, but I’ve never known how tough it was. Until recently, my uncle has always worked two jobs to provide for his family. A baker by day. A school janitor by night. Growing up, his family seemed so well-off compared to mine. Truth is they were an ordinary working-class family. Like so many others they lived from paycheck to paycheck.
When my uncle finishes the last of his stories, I say, “You’ve done so well for yourself, considering the shitty hand you were dealt in childhood.” This brings about an awkward pause in our conversation. My uncle stares at the ground as he considers my words.
The entrance to Emmaus House food bank in St. John’s is tucked away from view, as if to hide the needy from the judgmental glances of those walking by. I enter it from the small parking lot behind St. Bonaventure’s College and the Basilica. When the doors open, dozens of clients crowd into the waiting room. Volunteers in the office verify that each client is eligible for a hamper. They must be on social assistance or have a letter from a member of the clergy, and they can’t have received a hamper at any city food bank within the last thirty days. Once duly screened, they are given a slip that tells the volunteers in the warehouse the size of hamper they are to receive. At best they walk away with three days supply of food.
It’s my first day volunteering at Emmaus House and I’m working the counter. My job is to take the slips from the clients and put together the appropriate hamper for them. Some of the clients are single moms. Some are recently unemployed minimum-wage workers not yet in receipt of EI. Many are ‘street people’, folks struggling with addictions and mental health issues…