British Columbia

Can't go home: No ID strands Indigenous man on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

Rod Maxwell arrived in Vancouver from Terrace, B.C., last month. But a series of mishaps, including having his ID stolen, have left Maxwell wandering the streets of the city's Downtown Eastside.

Rod Maxwell can't prove his identity so he can't take a plane or bus home to his family in northern B.C.

Rod Maxwell arrived in Vancouver from Terrace, in northwestern B.C. a month ago. But his ID was stolen so he can't board a plane, train or bus home. With few options, he's stranded on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside during the COVID 19 crisis, sleeping in the streets and in Oppenheimer Park. (WAWMEESH HAMILTON/CBC)

Rod Maxwell's frumpy clothes look like they've been worn for days, and that's because they have.

Maxwell arrived in Vancouver from Terrace, B.C., last month. But a series of mishaps, including losing his personal identification, has stranded him on the Downtown Eastside.

Maxwell, 34, can't prove his identity. And the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the suspension of some services in the Downtown Eastside, including one that helps people replace lost ID.

Desperate to get home to his wife and daughters in northern B.C., Maxwell wanders the Downtown Eastside, sleeping in the streets and sometimes in Oppenheimer Park.

"I just want to get out of here. I want to go home to my family," Maxwell said. "I don't want to end up with the coronavirus and end up having to stay here."

One-way trip

Maxwell doesn't say too much about his past. He says he grew up in his home First Nation village of Lasxgalts'ap, also known as Greenville, before spending time in foster care elsewhere. 

Last month, he was living in Terrace, B.C., with his wife and children. He'd been struggling with alcohol and addictions when he took a friend up on an offer to bring him to Vancouver to help him get his life together.

Things went from bad to worse from the moment he arrived.

Tents in Oppenheimer Park between East Cordova and Powell streets on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Maxwell says his friend was arrested and jailed. Then his ID was stolen. Unable to prove his identity, he says he can't claim a plane, train or bus ticket. "My cousin said he'd pay for my ticket back, but I can't claim it or get on a plane or bus without my ID," he said.

CBC News has confirmed Maxwell's identity with a family member.

As well, the websites of Air Canada, Via Rail and Greyhound all state that passengers must present personal identification before boarding.

A small community service on the Downtown Eastside helps people get their personal identification, and Maxwell had an appointment with them. But concerns over COVID-19 caused the service to close temporarily before he could see them. With few other options and nowhere to stay, Maxwell wanders the streets of the Downtown Eastside.

'I've seen things I can't forget'

Maxwell says he sleeps in the streets and in the alleys, and when it gets cold he sleeps in Oppenheimer Park. 

"I know about social distancing because of this COVID-19 thing, but people stick close together at night to stay warm," he said. "I don't want to get infected, but the longer I stay here chances are I will and have to stay."

A thousand-yard gaze falls over Maxwell when he describes what he's experienced while here, especially at night. 

Maxwell hopes he can go home soon, perhaps with the help of a letter from police vouching for him. (WAWMEESH HAMILTON/CBC)

"There's a lot of mental illness, drug addiction and violence. Things you don't want to see," he said. He describes watching a man beaten over the head with a golf club over a pack of cigarettes. "I've seen things I can't forget. It's stuck with me. I just want to get out of here."

Bureaucratic hostage

Chris Livingstone works with Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society and works with homeless people in Oppenheimer Park.

Livingstone says Maxwell has only been here for a month, but it's already taking a toll. "You can see he doesn't have a jacket and doesn't have any other clothes. We know that he's wandering the streets at night. He's not sleeping well," he said. "He should be back home with his family."

With area services scaled back because of COVID-19 concerns, Livingstone says his last shot is getting a letter from the local community policing office vouching for Maxwell's identity based on interaction with police. But it's a gamble, he says. 

He's a hostage here.- Christopher Livingstone

"There's no guarantee that a letter will be enough. It's really up to the person at the gate whether he gets on or not," he said. 

If the letter doesn't work: "He's a hostage here. Circumstances that are holding him prisoner here on the Downtown Eastside," Livingstone said. 


Wawmeesh Hamilton

Indigenous Affairs Reporter

Wawmeesh Hamilton is an award winning Indigenous affairs reporter with CBC Vancouver. He reports on Indigenous people, communities and issues in B.C. and across Canada. His work about Indigenous people and reconciliation has also been published on CBC the National, CBC Radio, CBC Online and CBC Indigenous. His radio documentary Not Alone (CBC The Current) won the 2020 Jack Webster Award for best feature and enterprise reporting. Wawmeesh is a graduate of the UBC Graduate School of Journalism (2016). He lives in Vancouver and is a member of the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C.