Day 151 - Jeurek (1st person I approached)
May 31, 2014 - Jeurek was sitting on the cement curb, in a quiet spot at the back of a parking lot, when I spotted him. He was drinking a beer out of a tall brown glass bottle. The parking lot is used mostly by commuter traffic so on a Saturday afternoon, there weren’t many cars around. It was just Jeurek, a shopping buggy laden with small suitcases attached to the sides. There were plastic bags hanging off the edges and a jacket on the top. It was all neat and tidy. Next to the shopping buggy, were a couple of other plastic shopping bags and a small travel suitcase. On top of the suitcase was a portable radio, with music playing quietly. Jeurek had to spell his name for me a few times. He told this was the ‘informal’ version of his name, the formal name was Jerzy.
“It’s like Joe and Joseph, one is short form and one is formal. The formal one would be used on paperwork and such things. People who know me call me Jeurek,” he said. I thought it ironic that the formal name was shorter than the casual name, hence asking him a few times. Jeurek is from Poland, and while his accent is thick and heavy, after a few minutes we were understanding one another with ease.
“My middle name is Leonard,” he said smiling at me.
Jeurek was born in Poland in 1947.
“My father was Polish and my mother was from Russia. During the second world war, they were sent to Germany to work on farms. When the war was over, land that had formerly been part of Germany was given to Poland. The Government gave parcels of land to those returning from Germany. My parents got such a piece of land,” said Jeurek.
“It was in a town called Żochowo, which is similar to the word for ‘yellow’ so people called it Yellow Town. It is in the north of Poland, near the Baltic Sea,” he said. I asked him what memories of his childhood stood out for him the most.
“Well, I don’t actually remember this happening, but I remember my mother had a picture of me with two German friends of hers. I had been sitting outside surrounded by geese and one of the geese attacked me. These two friends had to come to my rescue. My mother told this story. I remember the picture, but not the goose attacking me,” said Jeurek, laughing.
In Poland Jeurek went to a regular school, and then for his last few years of school, he attended a technical school.
“I was studying electrical engineering. It was like high school, but I was learning a trade. We learned all day long. I called it a school that taught working classes. Then after I went to college to become an electrician, but I only stayed there for less than one year. I never finished. You can stay in school and hope to make money when you finish, or you can go to work and make money,” he said.
Jeurek then spent two years in the Polish military.
“I was working as an aircraft engineer, and still learning and getting paid for it. I worked on some Bombardier planes, and some Russian planes. As I got more experience, I became a Sergeant and with that, made more money,” he told me. Jeurek only stayed in the military for two years.
“If I had stayed for three years, I would have become a professional electrical engineer. But I didn’t want to stay in the military any longer. I left and got a job working in radio systems, installing the cables that are used in communications,” he said. Jeurek left the radio station job after one year, telling me,
“They all drink too much. It was too easy.” At this point in our conversation, he removed his dark sunglasses. His eyes are as blue as the sky.
Working in a factory in Żochowo, Jeurek was asked to help organize for the rising movement of “Solidarność” or Solidarity. This was the trade union federation under the leadership of Lech Walesa, that was getting world-wide attention in 1980.
“The movement had grown to close to 10 million members in just one year. I was organizing people for demonstrations and information distribution. I went to prison for three months because of my affiliation with Solidarność. When I got out of prison, I started distributing leaflets and flyers and was visited by members of the special forces. I was, shall we say, invited to leave Poland. If I did not leave, reading between the lines of what they told me, I would be back in prison, and it would be for much longer. They even gave me a passport. I was married by this time, and my wife’s sister had already fled Poland before martial law had been imposed. They had come to Vancouver, so on January 07, 1983, we came to Canada to join them. First to Toronto for one night, then Calgary for a few weeks and finally to Vancouver. I have been here ever since,” said Jeurek.
He has been married twice. His first wife was from Poland, and came with him to Canada. They have one son, and two grandchildren. He then married a woman from Quebec.
“Oh, she was a suspicious woman. Everything I said she thought it meant something else. French women are very different. I’ve not ever married again. I’m single now, of course,” he said.
For the last 20 years Jeurek has been homeless and living on the streets of Vancouver.
“There have been times when I’ve gotten a room for a few nights, or I’ve found a place to stay for maybe a couple of months. I think the longest I’ve been off the streets was once for a year. I paid rent, $700 a month. Then the landlord asked me to move out so they could renovate the place,” he said. Jeurek has a couple of regular places where he goes to sleep. He has all of his possessions in the cart that he pushes around.
“I had much more stuff, but three quarters of it got stolen. Even my lower dentures, and they were a good fit too! But there are a few possessions deep in that cart that I’ve had for many years.” The longest stretch Jeurek has gone without shelter was nine years.
“At that point your mind starts to get crooked. If you associate with other people who don’t wash or look after themselves, soon you start to live like that too. But now I try and stay away from the downtown area. Soon enough you start to be like the people you surround yourself with. So I like to be on my own. I have a few places that I know where I can go and I have soap and cloth and I wash myself every day. I go to the laundrette (near by) and clean my clothes. I’ve started to receive a pension, so I do what I can with the little money I have,” he said.
There was an underground parking lot on the west side of Vancouver, that used to turn a blind eye to him sleeping there. In the winter months, he would spend a little longer there each day.
“The cops came along one day and told me I’d be in trouble if I stayed there any more. I have a few different patches that I go to.” When it comes to food, Jeurek tries to buy what he can.
“I don't like to go to places every day like the Salvation Army, or soup kitchens. There are different places that I can get meals from on certain days. I buy some food myself. I don’t want to feel obligated to any organization,” he says with a resigned shrug of his shoulders.
I asked Jeurek how he felt people treated him as a homeless person.
“Well it’s different depending on the people. There are those who feel threatened. I like to have a beer. Not getting drunk, but I do like a cold beer on a hot day. And sometimes, it just helps to cut the edge of living on the streets. Maybe that makes people feel threatened. Maybe it's because of this," he says pointing to his heavily laden shopping cart.
"Some people who were homeless and are now off the streets look down their noses at me. It's as if to say ‘I got off the street, why can’t you.’ I think that is silly because if they end up back on the streets, then how will they feel? I also try not to be around a lot of other homeless people. They sit around and talk about people passing by, or other street people. If you sit with crows, eventually you screech like a crow. I don't want to do that. I want to be as independent as I can.” #notastranger