COLUMN: Jagrup Brar is keeping it real

MLA on Welfare Challenge deserves some respect for him month-long experiment.

Jagrup Brar isn’t the same man he was a few weeks ago, and it’s not just because he’s lost weight.

I’ll admit I was among the first to believe the Surrey MLA’s acceptance of the Welfare Challenge from Vancouver anti-poverty group Raise the Rates was little more than political theatre.

My assumption: A politician could easily live on welfare for $610 a month while guided by NDP handlers. It would be a farce of choreographed speeches about poverty in Surrey and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, all in front of doting media cameras.

After all, Brar has a cellphone, access to his family (he’s allowed one day at home each week) and theoretically has reporters at his beck and call.

It would be at worst a working sabbatical, right?

A 90-minute visit with Brar at the epicentre of the Downtown Eastside on the weekend (near Main and Hastings Streets) quashed all of my presumptions.

Just parking in front of the building at night where Brar is staying is intimidating, with three people lurking in the shadows out front.

Why aren’t they moving along?

There is no buzzer, so he must be phoned to open the front door.

You almost get used to the smell of the place (a nauseating combo of mustiness and human waste) by the time you get to the third floor, where brown-coloured stains mottle the ceiling tiles right above where Brar unlocks his door.

A single bare bulb illuminates the 121 square feet where he’ll stay for the last two weeks of January. (The bulb is not dangling from a wire, defying cliché).

With the fridge broken – and who ever heard of a kitchen sink and fridge underneath it combined as one appliance? – Brar must chill his perishables on the window sill. That experiment wouldn’t work in June.

He hasn’t eaten meat in days as he’s down to a few dollars. He relies on starchy cereal, oatmeal and noodles.

Across from Brar’s bed (two mattresses, no legs) is a “kitchen” table too short for his frame.

Bathroom and shower? That one room is shared by 11 units at the end of the hallway.

Brar must rise at 4:30 a.m. to wash, otherwise it’s a crapshoot as to who gets in first.

Speaking of crap, Brar says if you drop anything on the bathroom floor, consider it gone forever. (If the tired mop leaning on the bathroom wall could tell stories, I wouldn’t want to hear them).

Outside, Brar seems rather composed, having grown somewhat accustomed to the locals that people in other communities prefer to forget about.

He’s been walking the streets here daily since he moved in.

While a visitor might prefer to ignore the sad souls on an East Hastings sidewalk, or not even make eye contact if they say hello or ask for something, Brar responds to each of them – and afterwards explains why.

It’s respect.

At the core of it, these are people – regardless of how they got to this point in their lives. Poverty, drugs, alcohol, poor health… it doesn’t matter.

He’s seen the care that locals have for each other. Without knowing who he is (they almost never do), they’ve been kind to him, and have suggested nearby places to get free food.

The meal issue has been a constant struggle, and will remain so for the Surrey MLA after I head for home.

Brar will continue to live downtown for a few more days, alone, hungry and uncomfortable. He confides to me that if he had to stay there for another two or three months, he’d lose it.

He also shares he abandoned the luxury of visiting his home for the entire month.

Kudos for trying to keep it real.

Next month, he’ll have another challenge: Convincing colleagues back in the legislature that his brush with poverty left a powerful impression, and that the obstacles faced by the poorest of the poor are real.

Brar may have been away from work for a month, but it was no vacation.

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