2020. Much can be said about that year, and the one that followed it. Devastating. Heartbreaking and -wrenching. Anxiety-inducing. Isolating. Quarantining. Dividing. And also: Inspiring. Uniting. Uplifting, and -rising. Awareness-raising.
In case of Mackenzie Baxfield and Evan Reeks, the people behind Heart Tattoo Society, Covid sparked something entirely new: A community project that, within the matter of a few months, grew from making food for people who, like Mackenzie, had lost their jobs with shut-downs and quarantine, to serving over 1,000 meals a week on the streets of the Downtown East Side, Vancouver.
As is the case with many people I’ve spoken to on this blog so far, Mackenzie and I met at one of Vancouver’s most historic open mics: The Anza. She would play the Ukulele, and sometimes borrow my guitar, and I would marvel at her incredible voice and swag. A couple of years ago, when I had just moved to the Kootenays, I ventured we could do an interview together, and then, well, life happened.
When I went for a visit to the beautiful grey metropole earlier this fall, her name popped up on my Facebook feed, in a very different capacity: As Managing Director of the Heart Tattoo Society.
So I reached out, and luckily, she was able to make time for me in her busy schedule. We met at the Downtown Eastside Distribution Hub, a warehouse kind of setup right on Hastings, where several organizations working to protect the community have their operational base.
The story of the Heart Tattoo Society is really one of community. Mackenzie has always loved Gastown, and spent basically all of her adult life here. Back when we first met, she was playing six open mics a week, two of which were happening in Gastown, and would also frequent karaoke nights at the legendary Funky Winkerbeans and Pub 340. In May 2020, Mackenzie and her partner Evan Reeks moved into an apartment on Abbot and Cordova, right in the thick of what some people still call “Cracktown”. “I don’t think any of this would be doable if we weren’t central”, she says.
What they were doing was cooking meals in a huge pot on the stove of their 460 sq ft apartment, and lugging it on site in a pizza carrier bag. Now, they’re still manually carting the food they serve on the streets, but they scaled. Big time.
The food they used to make their meals originally came from restaurants Evan, who has been a chef for over 13 years, worked with or knew. When Covid hit, he kept his job for a while, but of course business went right down, so a lot of the produce was going to get thrown out. So him and Mackenzie asked if they could donate it to the streets. That’s pretty much how a lot of it still works: Grocery stores, catering companies, restaurants are donating food, Evan and the volunteers that have since joined their team cook it up and bring it to the people of the Downtown Eastside, most of whom live either in the few single room occupancy buildings that remain and offer somewhat affordable housing in the area, or on the streets.
Of course, due to health regulations and liability issues, many of the donors of those food supplies need to remain unnamed, which is part of the problem: Food waste especially in large cities like Vancouver is tremendous, yet due to policy a lot of it can’t be distributed efficiently to those most in need. In addition, not all food donations are necessarily helpful to people with, say, major dental issues, as a lot of the community in the DTES are experiencing. Fresh apples, for example.
Mackenzie and Evan are not only turning the donations into meals that are well-prepared and digestible (like warm apple sauce that’s being served to people in their line-up as they wait for the main event), but are doing so with love and inspiration. “Serving the best food in DTES if you ask me”, one Facebook comment reads. And honestly, the food looks amazing – I get hungry when I look at the pictures, and the menus Evan and Mackenzie dish out.
So it’s no surprise that, at their recent weekly barbecue that they offer in collaboration with Smoke Signals, people were lining up around the block for their delicious grub. Grass roots organizations like Smoke Signals, or the Overdose Prevention Society that partners with HTS for their second weekly barbecue at Abbot and Pender, and others are gathering a lot more attention these days. Mackenzie says this isn’t just a side-effect of Covid, but rather that Covid has been a reminder that there has been a public health emergency in the DTES since the late 90s – brought to the forefront again since 2018, when it was exacerbated by the fentanyl crisis.
“Everybody is shifting gears right now”, Mackenzie says: The perception of “Cracktown” is moving away from demonizing the addicted and mentally ill, from seeing it as being a “problem” to seeing the people, and advocating for harm reduction. The fact that the City of Vancouver has recently acknowledged food programs as a part of harm reduction speaks to that shift. But of course, there is still so much more much to be done, and learned.
Which is also why both Mackenzie and Evan started taking a course in Social Work, on top of their already crazy busy work schedules. Evan has recently received a stipend from Watari, a local agency serving the community and supporting programs and organizations like Heart Tattoo Society with funding and operational advice. Mackenzie started a new job in one of the single room occupancy buildings close to their apartment, and aside from the two barbecues that they serve each weak, feeding around 300+ people every time, they also provide the Overdose Prevention Society’s safe injection locations with sandwiches, and make special meals on public Holidays for them.
Aside from helping out with food prep and service, Mackenzie is also in charge of coordinating the increasing influx of volunteers, a couple of whom were busy finishing prep for the day when I came to visit at the Hub. “It just gives me an opportunity to get some hands-on experience”, Kaysha – a classmate of Mackenzie’s and Evan – says. And like her, Candace loves the feeling of doing something good for the community, something meaningful. The fact that they get to raid anything that’s left in the fridges at the end of the day likely adds to the enthusiasm that’s palpable in the room. It’s an inspiring atmosphere to be in.
As one can imagine, scaling a project like Heart Tattoo Society like Evan and Mack have, basically between the two of them, is an incredible effort – and despite the thumbs up by passing fire engine drivers and the friendly, encouraging blind eye the Vancouver Police Department is turning on their serving people in the middle of rush hour by a busy intersection, they’re starting to feel the strain. So what do they need?
Attention, for starters, and data to support that what they’re doing is important, and essential to harm reduction in the community. Being listed on the government’s communal resource site is a big step, as is being invited to cater the VPD’s annual charity golf tournament last year – even if it was cancelled due to rain. More contacts mean more impact, not just for Mackenzie and Evan, but for the other initiatives they’re connected with, as well.
People who know how to write grant applications would also be a tremendous asset. Aside from food donations, what’s constantly in low supply are (bio-degradable, preferably) food containers – and kitchen appliances are always welcome, of course. While Evan was able to acquire a Robo Coupe food processor, and they have an impressive arsenal of fridges at their disposal, more professional equipment means more meals can be prepared, more people be fed.
And of course, there’s donations. While Heart Tattoo Society is a society only by name for now – as the process of becoming a registered charity is both lenghty (a.k.a. highly bureaucratic) and expensive, ironically – they do have a website with a Paypal button through which one can make a donation. For any other or major gifts, you can get in touch with them directly – and also if you want to help out, either with your business, as a Charity partner or as an individual.
This aspect of their work is what’s really coming through for me as I watch Mackenzie answering questions about sandwich bags, directing people, showing me around the Distribution Hub and telling me about not just their work, but that of all the other amazing grass roots initiatives active in the area, trying their best to save lives, and make them better: That feeling of community, of caring for one another. “Because love is permanent” is the subtitle under the Society’s emblem. I can feel that, and I’m sure the many people whose lives are being touched by Mackenzie, Evan and their cheerful team of helpers can, too.
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