A look at those who are marginalized in the Lower Mainland and the consequences of profiling in society
By Koy Tayler, Contributor
Meet Don and Avril Cummings.
What are your first impressions of them? Both seem to be in their mid-60s, victims of mental illness, and possible addicts. Their physical appearances are lacking soberness in many areas: unkempt hair, baggy clothes, and an almost childlike demeanour. If seen on public transit, many would want to avoid eye contact or position themselves away from them to avoid conversation. People may even cross to adjacent sidewalks to avoid close proximity, as their odour is somewhat unpleasant. What—if anything—do they do to involve themselves in society except for draining taxpayers’ money? Clearly assistance with living and food expenses is required and they must wander the Lower Mainland endlessly, further clogging up the streets with more unruly individuals.
This couple is so heavily marginalized that they were hastily removed from a local coffee chain and sadly, they did not realize the true nature of the situation. Don described it as “a case of poor customer service,” one that seems to be occurring quite frequently for the two. Sour expressions and whispers ripple through areas where individuals such as Don and Avril are present in. Many believe that such people won’t understand these unwelcoming gestures, and in some cases this might be true but there are numerous individuals who are marginalized and know it. These people fall through the crevasses of society because they lack the homeless’ urgent need for help, but simultaneously are not “normal” enough to blend in with the masses. Is there anything that can remove stigmas towards those living in poverty?
Moving away from previous thoughts, let’s ask a more fitting question: who are they really? Don and Avril Cummings are the parents of a 20-year-old daughter, uncle and aunt to three nieces, and siblings to four others. Don turns 60 this year and Avril turns 55, their faces tarnished with the harshness of life. This adoring couple has been married for more than 20 years and have lived in a less-than-adequate, run-down, and cluttered apartment building in Vancouver for much of their adult lives. Their love is a true fairytale story with Don as the knight in shining armour rescuing the fair princess, Avril, from Riverview Hospital, all those years ago. Over the years, they have created an incredible life together, full of charity and compassion. Despite the social criticisms he faces on a daily basis, Don explains, “Everyone deserves a chance to be heard and understood.”
Sadly both lacked oxygen during and shortly after birth, and Avril acquired schizophrenia as a young girl, so they do face some challenges with tasks that many take for granted. Yet despite this, both have contributed greatly to society. For over 30 years, Don held down a managerial position at a local shoe store and for many years has been involved with their local church’s annual Christmas celebration by dressing up as Santa Claus. Both volunteer for the Vancouver Food Bank on a weekly basis and Avril contributes to their income by collecting bottles—rain or shine.
These two have the most joy any human could ever possess. They are engaged, motivated, exuberant, and tenacious—completely present in the world around them. Both enjoy talking to anyone who will take the time to listen, and actively participate in intelligent conversations, despite what many would think by just looking at their physical appearances. Many argue that poverty is a term created by the Western world and that the richest people are those who live the simplest lives; if so, this is shown through Don and Avril’s lives.
The simple moments are the ones that matter the most to these two, and family is everything and more. As a romantic date, the two will ride an entire bus route to places that they rarely get to see such as Belcarra and completely absorb the beauty of the world. They thrive off of human connection, constantly in contact with family and friends. Even when Don recently broke his hip, he was enthusiastic about the situation because it gave him the opportunity to go to physiotherapy and better understand the process of recovery. He also revealed how excited he was to be able to use a cane. Many forget to stay positive and to take the time to appreciate the basic and pure things in life—something to learn from this couple and others like them.
On a frequent basis, residents of British Columbia pass by these individuals with little more than a grunt and a snicker, but has anyone considered engaging with them? Through discussions with Don and Avril, I learned that they greatly appreciate simple conversations with others as it allows them to learn more about current events and to create connections.
Individuals such as Don and Avril seem to stick farther and farther outside of societal norms. It is a demographic that seems hard to miss in recent decades, but should the public be ignoring them? Don and Avril do not want pity from others and are not unhappy with the way their lives are, but many are not in the same mental position, which makes being criticized harder to deal with. Like this couple, many of those marginalized by other residents in Metro Vancouver take pride in the way they present themselves, but some bring their confidence down through extremely negative responses to their presence.
After learning the truth of Don and Avril’s love story, have your perceptions and judgments changed and perhaps turned into a more compassionate picture of who they truly are? It is time to step it up. Metro Vancouver must create relationships to better understand who these people really are and how they ended up in this unidentified and largely unaddressed social category.
At the same time, is it fair to create this issue from examining relationships with socially exiled people or is this situation just a part of society? Can connections be created for the sake of making them feel more included within the larger community even if many do not wish to understand or associate with these individuals? To improve conditions, the Lower Mainland should consider creating relationships to help improve perceptions of these individuals and potentially create a foundation to help them produce a better outcome in life. This is a situation that may need to be tackled at a grassroots level. Those inspired to take action may even want to consider looking for solutions through the municipal level to create a more aggressive plan in combating marginalization.
Instead of looking at people like Don and Avril Cummings like gum under your shoe that nags you as you walk and that you cannot get rid of, see them as important individuals in society and realize how much they can offer.