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Stories from creative writing workshops at Onsite

Photo by Jes Abeita

I facilitate creative writing at Onsite, the detox centre just on the upstairs of Insite on East Hastings Street.

The workshop is organized by Megaphone magazine, a street paper sold by homeless and low-income individuals. It is directed by former Adbusters associate editor Sean Condon, who took the publication on back when it was a thin black-and-white newsprint paper known as "Street Corner" and turned it into the vibrant, full-colour magazine that many Vancouvrites know today. The creative writing workshop, which started off as a weekly program at Onsite (led by poet Daniel Zomparelli), has since spread rapidly to six classes, and is offered to people suffering mental health problems at Bosman's Motor Hotel, as well as to vendors of Megaphone magazine.

People may wonder what purpose a creative writing class might serve for recovering addicts, the homeless, or individuals suffering from serious mental health problems. But everyone, regardless of their situation, has a story to tell. At Onsite, many students are in fact voracious readers and gifted writers and were even skipped grades in school before addiction took over their life. Others have struggled with writing all their life, and are surprised at what comes out when they allow their thoughts to flow on to the paper. The workshop offers a platform for self-exploration and expression for people who have often gone unheard.

The following works are published with permission from Megaphone magazine and the participants of the workshop.

"It can Happen to Anyone"
 -- by Brian C.

This story is by former health care worker who struggled with addiction and poverty throughout his youth. Clean-cut and polite, he does not strike most people as a typical drug user. In his story, "It could happen to everyone", he describes how prejudice against addicts and homeless people affected him at his former workplace.

Clean and sober for many years, I never thought I would return to the place that almost killed me. In the late 90s, I made a decision to stop using and get out of what I thought at the time was a place of hurt, pain and anger, so I detoxed and never looked back.

I moved to Alberta, clean and sober, ready to start a new life. I was in recovery, and my world changed. I got my family back. I took care of my legal problems and slowly paid back my debt to society. But I needed more, so I upgraded and went to university. Everyone was proud of me and who I had become.

But I carried a past. No one knew about where I was during my addiction. One day, one of my colleagues at work visited Vancouver and drove down Hastings street, taking pictures of homeless people, drug addicts and prostitutes. He brought in the photos to work so that everyone in the office could see them.

Everyone looked at the photos and laughed, making comments like, "Ha! Look at that junkie" and "What a skanky slut." I felt uneasy but laughed along, thinking my new friends were so much better than the ones I left behind during my addiction.

A few years passed and I started having dark thoughts about my childhood. I tried talking to my friends for support, but I could never get my feelings out to them.

So, like the good addict I was, I picked up.

Life quickly went to hell. I drifted from city to city, sleeping in shelters and eating at churches. I felt alone, scared, and hurt and all anyone ever said when I tried to be friendly was: "Who are you? You got cash or dope?"

All I could think of was that I need to get to Vancouver. I finally did. I remember walking down Main Street from the Greyhound to buy dope and walked into Insite. I saw in the waiting room and a man looked at me and said, "Your backpack is undone: you're going to lose your socks."

I did it up, and said thanks.

After I was sitting down in the chill room having a juice and we started talking. He was staying at the Sally Ann. I managed to get a bed there for the night as well. The following day, we left together, and every person we talked to was nice. Hastings Street, to me, is a place where I could go without feeling judged.

I could be myself. Everyone was helpful.

I was sitting down one day and chatting with a guy about stopping using. He told me to go to Insite and ask for help. I walked in, and the staff member was nice. He did not mock me. The point I'm trying to make as I write this in detox is that Vancouver's East Side is a community. People here are caught up in addiction, but they are always willing to listen and give you support for anything.

This time...when I clean up, I will somehow repay this area I call home.

The following poem was written by one of the oldest participants of the Onsite writing class. A self-described "hippie grandma", the friendly and easygoing woman -- who wished not to be identified by name -- claimed to never have written creatively before, but had a natural gift for poetry.

by BG

Where did my warts go
did the sacrifice of toenails pay off the debt
Why does my broken body ache
is it lack of opiates
that I'm trying to shake
As I lay sleeping it started to seep
Into the deeply the beauty
Oh so dimly lit hope that
Someday some soon, somewhere, some when
I'd throw off the subterranean
Cloak from my my back
and smile into sunshine
and look at my toes
and and realize I've painted them
row after row
Those laughing grandma colours
not one of the same
and be able some day, and somewhere, some when
hear the tinkerbell laugh of your smile
and reach down to hold your hand
again and again....

A collection of works from the Megaphone Creative Writing Workshop is published in the "Voices of the Street" edition of Megaphone Magazine.

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