Robert Epp – Aboriginal Resource Worker, Aboriginal Front Door Society


October 9, 2020


The Aboriginal Front Door Society (AFDS) is a meeting place and drop-in centre serving some of the most vulnerable residents of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) community. Operating since 1994, the AFDS offers support through Aboriginal cultural traditions, caring, and acceptance. They also serve as a crisis centre, brokering long-term and specialty trauma counseling, and doing court accompaniments. They have remained open throughout the COVID pandemic, ramping up their meal provisions to over 1,900 servings per week, while taking their peer counseling efforts out of the office and into the streets due to social distancing requirements. AFDS runs a community podcast, and was recently featured in the CBC for launching the Sweet Grass Patrol, a community-based, Indigenous-led street patrol Aboriginal Resource Worker Robert Epp speaks below about the challenges of operating crucial community services during a pandemic.

This interview took place on October 9th, 2020. Some of the information discussed below was true at the time of this interview but may currently be different. 

Alasdair: Hi Robert, could you let us know how long the society has been running and what its relationship is to the community in the DTES? 

Robert: Yes, we’ve been here since November 1994. The Aboriginal Front Door Society’s relationship to the Downtown Eastside is: We cater to the most vulnerable and the homeless. We work with every other non-profit agency, and the police too, to coordinate and give people a safe place to be. To find help, shelter, food to eat, and stuff like that. 

Alasdair: We’ve seen the videos and we are hoping to link to those on YouTube where you were interviewing people in the DTES about how they were coping (note: you can find the videos here). How have you been able to help people as far as coping with some of the problems we’ve seen in the videos – issues like isolation, less avenues of places for them to go because of all the closure. 

Robert: Yes. We’ve done our best like everybody else with physical or social distancing and all the stuff that goes along with it. We’ve actually had to close down our doors but we’ve remained open through the street. We’ve had to change a little bit because our contact with people is limited now. But we still have contact. Pre-COVID we were doing 200 meals a week. Now that we’re in the COVID we are serving 1900-2100 meals a week. Our coffee output has gone from 250-300 people per week to around 1900. We’re not supposed to have this much contact but we’ve been way busier with the COVID crisis going on. And we’re still doing it. 

Alasdair: Do you think that is because people have less places to turn to now?

Robert: Well yes, everybody shut the doors down and all of a sudden people are coming to us. We never shut our doors down. We had a meeting back in March to decide if we were going to close or stay open and that was one of the best ideas – to stay open – a lot of people have closed their doors so people keep coming to us, even more. 

Bill: Is this for anybody?

Robert: That’s the thing, we used to cater mostly to the homeless Native people, First Nations people. But lately we’ve had everybody come to us. And we don’t turn anybody down. We encourage anyone to come to us. At the Front Door we always say it doesn’t matter if you’re green, purple, grey, or whatever, you are more than welcome to come to us. Yes, we are open to everyone, especially now. And I’m happy about that. 

Alasdair: That’s a good way to enter into the questions about what the Aboriginal mission of the society was. If you could give us an idea of what it looks like to serve the people using aboriginal cultural traditions

Robert: Respecting the dignity of the traditions. We treat everybody on a one-to-one basis. We try to incorporate respect. It’s part of our tradition to show respect and dignity to each and everybody, all individuals. We don’t turn people away, we try not to yell at people, we give them respect.  Even if they don’t give it to us we’ll just tell them to come back when they are having a better day. We don’t try to yell or intimidate, and we don’t turn anyone down. 

Alasdair: So what does it look like for someone coming in for your services today, you mentioned you’ve had to change to reduce physical contact, and what would it normally look like. 

Robert: Normally, someone can just enter (the building), they would sit down and wait for someone to talk to. These days it’s a one-to-one at the door and then I’ll come outside and we’ll have a talk outside. I have my meetings out on the sidewalk instead of in the office. We do all our meetings on the street now even though we have an office inside. 

Bill: So that conversation, it’s about how you can help this person? 

Robert: Yes. We’ll try to help and if we don’t have the answers we’ll help refer them to other agencies. For housing, for example, sometimes we can’t always get what they want and I know that other agencies, for example the Carnegie Outreach, has better access for some things, so I’ll refer to them. We always work within the DTES through different agencies. If I can’t do it then I’ll refer it to other agencies around the DTES. 

Bill:  Could you give us examples of the types of things that people come talk to you about, that they need help with? 

Robert: Yes, for example getting rides back to their home. It’s really sad but we can’t do too much. We have people asking for rides to Prince George or ticket money back to Saskatchewan. We get that a lot but it’s really hard to find help with. Housing is another, so for example BC Housing or any of the Native housing societies, we try to get them to help with that. Food, if we can’t help here we’ll try to get them in with Union Gospel, or if it’s a woman we’ll look to get help from the women’s shelter.

Transportation and getting people home is a big one that we don’t have an answer to and I don’t think anybody else does too. And also helping women. And there’s families with children that we try to refer over to another centre. 

Alasdair: Do you think the demand for transportation has been heightened now? 

Robert: The transportation thing is big, especially downtown. A lot of people get stuck, they get stuck for months, especially when everything gets closed in the COVID crisis, it gets worse. That’s one of the big things. And when Greyhound quit transportation. Holy smokes, you don’t know how much that affected low-budget people. I’ve even tried getting on Facebook rideshare to help people but that’s pretty limited. That’s one thing I’ve noticed. The services shut down and more and more people are coming to us for services that we can’t provide as much. 

Bill: Do you give help with addiction services? 

Robert: Oh yes. We do try to refer people down to the Native court where there’s counselors and such. If anybody is really hurting we’ll refer them there. I’ve taken a few guys to Vancouver Detox. If they come in and they’re really hurting then we’ll try to accommodate that. We often end up referring them to other agencies. The Salvation Army has a great service for men with addictions. And also the Union Gospel Mission too. There’s different things we can do. 

Bill: So what does your day look like? You go in 9-5 and just help people one by one?

Robert: We deal with a lot of things. I deal with the clients. Also keeping stock of our kitchen to make sure we have enough food to distribute during the day, food and snacks. I go shopping to Costco and Superstore. I’m responsible for pick-ups and deliveries of different stuff. Save On Foods has some distribution that we take care of. I go over there and help them bring their distribution over to here. I do a lot of that. I do mail deliveries for the office and stuff like that. It’s a myriad of stuff. I pick up stuff from Atira (a local women’s resource centre). I also work with the Vancouver Police Department a bit. We’re starting another project with them. And we run a podcast. 

Alasdair: What’s the podcast? 

Robert: The Aboriginal Front Door podcast, it’s a live podcast. We bring in different guests.  We’ve had  Melanie Marks, we’ve had Jenny Kwan, our parliamentary figure here. She’s been on our show. And then I get different people from the DTES, some people that work at the Salvation Army or from the UGM (Union Gospel Mission), artists, it’s a different thing. It’s all focused on the DTES and what the DTES has to offer because people don’t really see what happens in the real world. They just see a bunch of addicts and drunks, they don’t see that people have a lot of talent down here. 

Bill: Can you tell us about who the people are, their talents? 

Robert: Ah shoot. For example we have some people that have sobered up, straightened out their lives. Now they’re coming back. We have artists. We have Garnet Tobacco from the Cree Nation, he does a lot of our artwork here. We have people in addiction recovery, they talk about doing their Masters. We have people who have their Masters, people who have their Bachelor of Arts, PhDs, that sober up and they come out and get their degrees. I’ve had a few people on our program talking about that. There’s success stories down here. 

Bill: Of course. I’ve watched some of the podcast and it’s really great to learn about the people. Was that your idea? 

Robert: Yes, it’s great bringing positive exposure because a lot of people in different places like Port Moody or whatever for example that live the suburban life, they don’t know about this stuff, and I’m trying to bring exposure to our people downtown, to tell our stories. 

Alasdair: I also thought the videos were amazing, they showed the range of people that are down here. 

Robert: I can tell you there’s an online thing coming up, we’re working with the Heart of the City festival, we’re going to document some of the festival and have a panel discussion. We’re also working on a mural project, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but there’s a bunch of murals coming up on the buildings around here. We’re doing a big mural project. We’re just in the process of documenting that process. There’s a big one going up right next door that we’re going to document from start to finish so we can showcase the talent to the world. 

Alasdair: Heart of the City Festival has always been great at showcasing the beauty and talent in the neighbourhood. So can you give an example of the changes in people’s lives that have happened because of the work the AFDS does? 

Robert: Sure. We had two single mothers that came in here and now they have places to live. Now they volunteer with us. And they have a roof over their heads and they are keeping their children safe. They were homeless and we came in to help them find housing. And they get housing and their world changes. And they come back and bring their stories to us, in a positive way. That’s one example. 

Alasdair: That is great. Is that through connecting them to different services that they would have had difficulty finding on their own, through advocating for them that you are able to connect them?

Robert: Yes, when they come to us in a situation like that we try to help bring a sense of urgency when we contact the agencies, help fast track it right away that we have an urgent case and need a fast response. As opposed to them having to do it themselves, cold calling places. I think it helps them get a quicker response. 

Alasdair: How has the organization changed because of the pandemic? 

Robert: That’s good question. “Hey Jackson” (calls over to Jackson Dionne, Executive Director of AFDS)  

(They confer

Robert: He says, like for example just with the number of people we’ve served has gone up anywhere from 3 to 5 fold. From 100 people a day to 300-500. Sometimes it used to be 350 people a week, now it’s 1900-2100 per week. That’s the pandemic for us. And it’s staying, it’s not going away. Even with some of the organizations that initially closed opening back up now, our numbers are staying high. And another thing, we were open longer before, we used to be open at 730a.m until 3p.m. Now we’re’ open shorter, from 10a.m -2p.m and we’re still getting bigger numbers. 

Alasdair: So way less hours but way more output.

Robert: Yeah, way more output. And we’re also getting our funding cut off. When the COVID money was in and we had the peer workers, the volunteers that we’d pay. We had it going on, we were bumping in here with like 10 people. Now we’ve been cut back to 4 people, and we’re still doing the same numbers. It’s a crazy stress on some of our people. Me, for example, I’m a little stressed by the end of the day, I’ve always got 10 different things going on and still got to find time do them. 

Robert: Because that’s all they allocated for the pandemic funding so far. But they’re starting to do more studies on it I guess, and then maybe they’ll come back with more funding. I can tell them now they don’t need to do more finding studies, I can just tell them what it’s like here  now! 

Alasdair: There’s a general anxiety around a lot of organizations right now with the original funding running out and the pandemic is still here and the needs are still here but more funding hasn’t been approved yet. 

Robert: Exactly, we’re kind of in a holding pattern waiting for that. I can tell you too that the pandemic has created…we used to get a lot of donations from Value Village and Costco. Costco have cut down their donations quite a bit, because of the pandemic. Because of physical distancing and contact. We’ve had to go out and buy more of our stuff because of it. 

Bill: Have cash donations changed, are people giving anymore because of the pandemic? 

Robert: Yes. We were right in the process of revamping our website and it has better options for donations. And it seems with the new website and the pandemic,  donations have been slightly up. 

Bill: Do you live in the DTES? 

Robert: Yes. I live at Jackson and Hastings. 

Bill: Can you tell us as someone who lives in the DTES, what has it been like? 

Robert: Well when the CERB (Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit) money was in, it was all lovey-dovey on the street. That CERB money has been cut off and I notice a lot more grumpy people, a lot more assaults, a lot more anxiety. When the CERB money was in it was all Lovey-Dovey. Just like the first 48 hours after welfare day. We don’t see anybody at all on welfare day. And then after 24 hours it starts to creep back up. And it was the same when the CERB ended. I noticed people get a lot more desperate out there again. True story on that! 

Bill: How are you keeping yourself safe. With the pandemic, and if it’s more dangerous out there? 

Robert: You know, I just live my life. I use masks, I wash my hands a lot more. That’s it. I haven’t been sick. I’m very hyper aware of it though. We just try to follow good hygiene, definitely more aware of it in these pandemic days. 

Alasdair: There’s been some criticism about the lack of transparency from health authorities around cases in the DTES? Do you think that’s the case? 

Robert:  (laughing) I notice there’s a major thing on TV in suburbia world if there’s an outbreak there. We never hear of it down here. I know from guys I volunteer with, they had a whole building exposed down here and nobody reported that. There’s another building at Jackson and Hastings that had confirmed cases there. Nothing. Nothing reported. That was two weeks ago. I never hear the numbers. I never hear people complain about the COVID outbreak on the DTES like the places out there in the news. We’re getting more outbreaks than you hear about. It never gets reported. 

Bill: Can you tell us about what you are working on with the VPD. 

Robert: Yes. We are doing a citizen’s patrol called the Pandemic Citizen’s Patrol Outreach (note: this is now up and running as the Sweet Grass Patrol). With that we’re going to have a group of volunteers to walk around the DTES. With the funding cuts from the VPD, we’re trying to bridge that gap with volunteers. You know how the Police Department is complaining that their funding got cut? We’re trying to replace some of that with volunteers to alleviate some of the pressure from the police department’s dilemma there.  That’s what we’re working on. The president of the AFDS is also the Executive Director of the Grandview Policing Department . So I’m working with him and a few people on this patrol. We’ve had some negative output from the Strathcona Residents Association (laughs), they’re telling us ‘just keep everything in the DTES and leave us alone’ and that was one of the biggest things we’re dealing with. The residents association don’t want anything to do with the patrol but they do want help keeping people from crawling on their lawns and tweaking out on their sidewalks. That’s what we’re here for so that the residents and the homeless don’t collide, to try and work together. 

Bill: When is this starting? 

Robert: It’s in the process right now, we’re having a meeting next week. I think the date is Oct 20th, CBC is gonna come by and interview us and it will be showcased on CBC National (you can find the story here). 

Bill: So the citizen’s patrol will be a group of you walking around making sure people are safe and checking in on people to see if they need help? 

Robert: Yes. It’s based on the Bear Clan Patrol out of Winnipeg. Their success story is that     action in the community and by the community has more positive results than just the Police Department by themselves. We’re working on that and hoping for the best.

Alasdair: Who approached who in that partnership? The community or the police? 

Robert: I started this idea because I knew there was a need for it. When the funding got cut and also the brutality that’s been going on in the DTES with the Police Department, I knew there was a need for change. It’s basically come up from that. I’m not gonna take credit for it, I’m one of the members that was concerned about what’s going on in our community and trying to do something about it. 

Bill: Can you give us an example, if it’s appropriate, of what’s been happening as far as brutality? 

Robert: Where do we start? Holy smokes.  When a native gets approached about the cops he usually gets kicked in or gets told to get the ‘F’ on, get out of the street. 

Bill: And that’s common?

Robert: That’s common. They’ll pull him in the alley and beat the crap right out of him. That’s common. That happens. We’re trying to eliminate a lot of that stuff just by being visible. Police need to be accountable too, just like citizens, and everybody else is on the street. You’d be surprised when you see guys walking around talking to people and handing out coffee how the police back off. They don’t put on their ‘heavy’ man when they see us around. It just is. We’re trying to protect our citizens just as much from the police as the police from the citizens. I don’t know how else to explain it. If you’ve ever been…if you’re Native, with long hair, and you’re in the DTES man, believe me. I’m a Native guy and I’ve had it myself. I was fed up with it and I wanted to do something. 

Ever since this pandemic, I noticed the police have changed their whole ideology on policing. They’ve kind of backed off. They’ve backed off on the street checks and that went a long way to keeping violence down.     

Bill: So  it must be difficult for you to be working with the police on something like this? 

Robert: Oh dude! I can’t stand law enforcement, I’m sorry but (laughs) it is challenging but I try to keep my bias out of the way. Try to work in a professional way. It is challenging because I don’t trust any of those guys to be honest. Because of all the stuff they’ve pulled on us. 

Bill: I am sorry to hear that. It sounds like this is a really good idea and a good way to lessen the violence. Best of luck to you with this. 

Robert. Ya. Thank you.

Alasdair: Thank you. I appreciate it’s really busy down there and I appreciate you sharing your stories with us.