British Columbia

Downtown Eastside residents send letters to loved ones

Many people in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood have completely lost contact with their loved ones, but a former drug user is helping get their Christmas well wishes out.

Many people in the community have completely lost contact with their loved ones

Freddie "Happy" Edwards writes a letter to his brother Brent on Vancouver Island. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Betty "Che" Carrillo stands next to a little plastic table at the corner of Main and Hastings on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. 

Down the block, four ambulances, a fire truck and a coroner's van tend to both an overdose call and a separate incident where a person was found dead inside the Balmoral Hotel.

Carrillo calls out to passers-by, many of whom are clearly under the influence of drugs, "Would you like to write a letter of love?"

The 53-year-old, who has three grandchildren, struggled with a cocaine and heroin addiction in the 1990s, when a drug epidemic tore through the Downtown Eastside. Thanks to a recovery program, she was able to kick the drugs and hasn't looked back.

Betty "Che" Carrillo (right) helps a woman write a letter on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

But Carrillo is horrified by the intensity of the opioid overdose crisis that now ravages the neighbourhood.

"This is something different," she said. "You take the hit and in a few minutes, if not seconds, you're down on the floor.

In one night alone last week, nine people were killed by overdoses in Vancouver — most of them on the Downtown Eastside.

Since then, Carrillo has spent several hours a day in the neighbourhood asking people if they would like to write a letter to a loved one.

"I'm collecting letters of love to family members," she said. "In this case, I have this letter here that indicates a mom that loves [her] child and that she hopes to see him in the new year, but what we don't know is that she will be alive in the new year, and that's the point, to capture at least a message from her to her family."

Betty "Che" Carrillo has collected more than 30 notes from people living on the Downtown Eastside. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Carrillo has collected more than 30 letters, and in some cases she'll actually track down the recipients and put them in the mail. But for the most part, she said the plan is to post them on a Facebook page that she created —the notes will be there for family to find in the unfortunate event that the writer doesn't survive this overdose crisis.

Robin McIntosh is one of the people Carrillo has helped with a letter.

"I broke my wrist, so she wrote it. I dictated it," said McIntosh, who addressed the letter to her grandson, daughter, son, sister and brother in law.

Robin McIntosh holds up a Christmas note Betty Carrillo helped her write to her grandson, daughter, son, sister and brother-in-law. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

She said she hasn't had contact with her daughter and grandson for a couple years.

"Because I live [on the Downtown Eastside], you know, people judge when you live downtown, they have no idea," said McIntosh.

"Not seeing my grandson and my daughter, it's terrible. It's not a nice feeling at all."

Freddie "Happy" Edwards is another person who drafted a note. His was to his brother Brent who lives on Vancouver Island.

"I just started," said Edwards, "It says, 'Hi, my little bro, long time no see and hear,' because it's been over a decade since I've talked to him."

Betty "Che" Carrillo helps Freddie "Happy" Edwards prepare a letter for the mail. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"I think about him. I do miss him a lot. You know, the last time I seen him he was a little guy, right?"

Edwards ended up writing a very long letter, and he seemed to enjoy the experience.

"I'm big on Christmas," he said. "Every Christmas, I think about my mom [who passed away], then I think about by brother Brent, so…"

Meanwhile across the street, Maple Ridge school principal Kristi Blakeway and her team of "Project Hello" tuque-clad volunteers were working on a similar project.

Since 2009, Blakeway has collected Christmas letters from the Downtown Eastside to send to people's families.

"Our students in Maple Ridge make handmade Christmas cards and then the high school students come to the streets with us and we offer people the opportunity to write a card to any friends or family that they want to say Merry Christmas to," she said.

Members of the Project Hello team collect letters on East Hastings Street in Vancouver. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Blakeway said the research required to find the families is one of the most labour intensive parts of the process, but they've found about 500 families across North America and roughly 70 per cent of letters eventually find their intended recipient.

But for Carrillo, the whole effort is all about the current fentanyl overdose crisis. She's figuring it out as she goes along and doing what she can to help out people in the community.

Her eyes begin to water as she reads one of the letters she's collected.

"This says, 'Hi baby boy, I love you and I miss you so much. I hope to see you in the new year. Don't be mad at me. I'm trying my best to be good. I want to see you all. I love you and I miss you. Love much, your mommy.'"

"I'm just thankful that it's not me. I am safe," she says as she wipes away her tears.

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker