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The Door Is Open: Memoir of a Soup Kitchen Volunteer

by Bart Campbell

The facts of Canadian poverty make for a stunning array of annual academic reports, conferences, and statistics-based treatises, but few provide a face-to-face look at the lost generations who inhabit the skid rows of our major cities. The human face of the poverty that grips upward of 5 million Canadians is vividly portrayed in The Door Is Open. Bart Campbell pulls no punches in his description of his years volunteering at one of downtown Vancouver’s bleakest drop-in centres.

It’s a world where alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, petty career criminals, and other untouchables of Canadian society hang out. And it’s a world, Campbell reminds us, that most Canadians are only two months away from if they lose their current job.

Campbell acknowledges his own perceptions and biases – writing the book was a form of therapy for him, just as volunteering in such a forbidden place was his response to the pain of a marriage breakup. While he refuses to pretty up the homeless to make them more like the baby seals that so easily arouse public sympathy, he does note that his time working on skid row transformed his depression and despair in ways the psychiatrist’s couch could never provide. By witnessing and trying to ease the suffering of those worse off than him, Campbell was able to put his own in perspective.

His narrative reads like a 1930s noir journey into the seamier sides of cities once prowled by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It is this straight-up style that is both the book’s strength and, on occasion, its only weak link. Readers looking for a sense of hope will find little of it in Campbell’s gritty descriptions. Indeed, some readers might mistake his unrelenting portrayal of the skid row inhabitants as representative of the homeless population across Canada, most of whom are not victims of addiction or mental illness, but of an economy that has been stacked against them for most of their lives, if not for generations before.