It was ten years ago that I met Jennifer Allan. She impressed me then; I’m even more impressed now. We both had a fair amount of experience with the Vancouver street-life, but where I was just upset and angry with it at that time in my life, Jen, who was many years my junior, was actually out there doing something about it. That particular evening that I’m recalling, I had asked Jen what she was up to that night, and she told me she was giving out some food. I asked her if she was volunteering somewhere, and she explained with that enthusiasm that only a youngster in their mid-twenties can have, that she had started up a company called Jen’s Kitchen whose mission was to provide advocacy, and outreach, and provide food to survival sex workers, females who had recently been released from Federal or Provincial custody, single mothers, and victims of domestic violence. Did I mention she started this when she was 26 years old?
In all fairness I have to admit that although I said all the right things at the time, I really wasn’t all that certain her new endeavor was going to last too long. I know that earlier I said I was impressed, and I was. It was an ambitious plan, and it was well thought out and articulated for someone of Jen’s age. She didn’t just tell me she was going to feed a bunch of people, but she had listed precise groupings of individuals, and individuals that when combined formed a very well-defined group. This showed a tremendous amount of insight for a young lady such as Jennifer, who had herself just recently been more-or-less trapped on those same streets on which she would now be seeking her clients. Add to this the fact that she had no support system at that time, she was supplying all the food that she was handing out from her own cupboards, and maybe you can see why I had some misgivings. Of course, if I had known Jen as well then, as I know her now, I would never have had even a second thought about her ability to pull the whole thing off.
I can remember asking Jennifer, “Isn’t there already groups handing out food to these people?”, and she said to me, “Yeah, they give the girls condoms, and needles, and candy with religious tracts attached to them!” Now you have to understand that both Jen and I are practicing Christians, so I have nothing against church people in general, but I do think the last thing a hungry survival sex worker needs in her life while she is starving to death is a religious tract and bad teeth. So I think the sandwiches, or the soup or stews that Jennifer brings down from her house just goes a lot further at that particular time in their lives.
Anyway, I was up at Jennifer’s yesterday and was able to ask her how things are going now that’s she’s been at it for ten years, and what’s different. She told me on the one hand she’s getting a lot more help these days with donations coming in from various Christian organizations, several private individuals, and the Food Bank, so added to what she still contributes herself, she’s feeding a lot more people, even being able to add generalized homeless people to her list of individuals that she lends a helping hand to. She’s also doing a lot more Community Activism these days, with her primary focus falling in five different areas: Violence Against Women, Homelessness, Police Brutality, Missing/Murdered Women in Canada, and Human Trafficking. If you think that’s a lot of work for one person to take on, then you might be making the same mistake that I made with Jennifer those ten long years ago.
Since that first meeting with this fire-brand of a woman from the Kwan-lun-dunn First Nations Band in the Yukon, I’ve quit underestimating her. I’ve seen her go into prisons and give lectures to female youth offenders, for whom she also served as an advocate at various times, I’ve seen her get invited to Belfast, Ireland as a guest speaker on women’s issues, as well as in the United States, and across Canada. I’ve seen her get interviewed for her opinion on T.V. and radio, and I happen to know she’s had more than one run-in with Vancouver’s finest for her outspokenness when she felt they might be misbehaving, or not applying enough effort on a particular issue. And with all of this on her plate, you can still find her on many nights in the Downtown Eastside, or out in Yaletown or the Westend, handing out food to some hungry person who probably knows her on sight. Before I left her yesterday so she could get to where she was going, I asked her if she had anything she wanted to say about all this to anyone who might read it. She said,
“Please, we need to challenge the way we see these survival sex workers, and start viewing them as human beings. I believe the persistence of this poor image is why the agencies in charge of helping these individuals never seem to have enough of the proper types of programs in place. We need more “exiting” programs, more detox beds, and more treatment centers. Of course, none of this will help unless we have safe, affordable housing available to get these people off the street while they take advantage of these programs, and the opportunities that are out there by which they can further their education, and then use the knowledge they acquire to make better choices this time around.”
This city could do a lot worse than to pay attention to what my friend here is saying. She’s certainly had enough other cities invite her down just so they could have a chance to hear the same things. Yes, it’s been ten years since I’ve known Jennifer, and I’m very happy to count her among my dearest friends. Hopefully, you all enjoyed meeting her as much as I enjoy knowing her, and if you ever see her while you’re walking around Vancouver, don’t be afraid to say hello…she only looks like she could take you two out of three falls. Until next time…
A special treat for the brave souls who venture down this far. A nice mellow tune, “Mary” by Sarah McLachlan, accompanied by her wonderful piano.