British Columbia

Pretty Lonely: Meet the Vancouverites on the frontlines of social isolation

Winston Yuen has been lonely for as long as he can remember. In the second grade, he wrote his phone number on tiny strips of paper and passed them to each of his Burnaby classmates in the hope of gaining friends.

'I'm so lonely in Vancouver I don't know what to do anymore'

Despite decades of isolation, Winston Yuen says he is refusing to give up on social connection. (Winston Yuen)

Winston Yuen has been lonely for as long as he can remember. In the second grade, he wrote his phone number on tiny strips of paper and passed them to each of his Burnaby classmates in the hope of gaining friends.

Yuen winces at the memory as he tells the story.

"I guess, my teacher thought it was inappropriate and I believe she took all the papers back," he remembers.

"I don't know why. I was only six years old."

Winston has been lonely since childhood. (Winston Yuen)

Since then, Yuen, now 32, has tried everything he can think of to find social connection in Vancouver: church, festivals, running groups, eventually, at age 29, joining the ranks of the lonely crying out for help on Reddit.

That post, entitled "So lonely in Vancouver I don't know what to do anymore," asked for help improving his friend-making strategy.

He hasn't been able to make a true friend in the last two years, he writes in his post. At times, he's been so dejected he hasn't been able to get out of bed.

Lonely young people across the city are using Reddit to reach out. (Reddit )

Young adults, between 25 and 35 are the hardest hit by social isolation in Metro Vancouver according to the Vancouver Foundation's Connections and Engagement report, released in December, 2017.

This report echoes the findings of the Foundation's 2012 study, which first drew attention to the widespread concern over disconnection in the city.

A quick search on Reddit turns up dozens of comments from young people who say they can't seem to crack the social code in Metro Vancouver and can't figure out what they are doing wrong.

The Vancouver Foundation's research suggests that battling affordability might be getting in the way of making connections . A third of under 35s said that more financial resources would make it easier to make friends. 

These are not seniors, nor are they newcomers struggling to learn English. They are often the demographic that is overlooked in the discussion of social isolation; young, employed and making an effort.

Are we flaky?

After decades of loneliness in his hometown, Yuen has his own theory to explain why isolation thrives in the Lower Mainland. He believes working to keep your head above water in this city has made it acceptable to back out of commitment.

Flaky is the word used by Charles Wang, a volunteer at the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of BC. 

It is a criticism often hurled at young people but it's one that Charles is qualified to throw around. Volunteers like him are anything but flaky. At the crisis centre, they make a serious commitment to accompany the lonely in their darkest moments for at least 250 hours in a year.

Staff there can answer only about half the approximately 88,000 calls received each year.  Some regular callers depend on a daily connection. Others reach out when the loneliness becomes too much to bear alone, said Wang.

Commitment has a cost

The call centre itself is filled with murmurs of soothing, soft voices.

It may sound calm, but Wang calls his work "frontline stuff." It's a big investment of time and emotional energy, and calls can last hours, he said.

"In those moments I feel incredibly connected to those callers, where they are in their pain, but  there's a cost to that connection."

The most recent data  from the Vancouver Foundation suggests it's hard to blame young Vancouverites for being flaky when many feel their connection to this city is uncertain.

Half of those under 35 who responded to the survey said that they did not feel a strong sense of belonging in their neighbourhoods.

More than half said they were unsure whether they would still be in the same neighbourhood next year.

Yuen says the odds may be stacked against him but he plans to keep searching for connection.

"I'm not giving up. The alternative isn't very nice, it's just retreating and sitting at home by myself. I want to try to live a better life."

Pretty Lonely

This story is part of a radio and web series that looks into why many Metro Vancouver residents in their 20s and 30s experience social isolation.

The five-part radio series, which airs on CBC radio from November 19 to 23, is produced by Jennifer Wilson, this year's recipient of Langara College's Read-Mercer Fellowship.

Tune into The Early Edition on 88.1 FM or 690 AM, weekdays 5:10-8:37 am, to hear the series.


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