Faces of the Downtown Eastside: Jay's story

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We walk by the broken, the ones whose voices are rarely heard, and the ones whose struggles we cannot begin to comprehend. We realize that they are people, but never see them as a person as we place masks to hide the faces of the Downtown Eastside.

It’s time to take away the stereotypes associated with those that belong within the Downtown Eastside and strip away the masks that we have placed upon them. This is their story.


Our series on the faces of the Downtown Eastside starts off with Jay Kivell, a local shelter worker at Harbour Light.

After a life filled with abuse, addiction and homelessness, 38-year-old Jay Kivell is celebrating his 12th year of sobriety by getting the biggest promotion of his life.

Raised by a single, alcoholic mother, Kivell grew up in a home where he was either being neglected or physically abused. “She made it clear when I was growing up that she wished that I was never born,” he said. “She had no issue with leaving me at home for a week by myself when I was eight years old.”

When he wasn’t being left to fend for himself, he was being babysat by the daughter of a family friend. “This woman would sexually abuse me, quite often. She was 18 at the time. I was six and it went on until I was about 12.”

Kivell said that he never told anyone what was happening to him. “I didn’t want to get anybody in trouble. I didn’t want to get in trouble myself. At that age, I figured I would be the one in trouble just for being a part of it.”

He started smoking cigarettes by age 12. By 14, he was smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. By the time he was in his 20s, he was homeless and smoking crack.

At the age of 27 while living in Jasper, Alberta, Kivell had finally hit bottom and tried to commit suicide. “In one 12 hour period, I got into a fight with my boss, thrown into a drunk tank, evicted from my apartment, fired from my job and dumped by my girlfriend. I realized then that it was my addiction that was in charge.”

He woke up in a hospital bed and decided that he wanted to change his life. After talking with the hospital counsellor, he was told to go to Vancouver and try The Salvation Army’s Harbour Light Treatment Program. Kivell said that he had never been to Vancouver before so he thought he might as well give it a try.

It would be his seventh time in treatment, and also his last. Kivell said he weighed 117 pounds when he got off the bus and checked in to treatment. “They saved my life,” he said of the staff at Harbour Light. “They opened up their arms and welcomed me, despite my deep dark secrets. They didn’t judge me.”

Kivell said he never relapsed after Harbour Light because he was finally ready to be honest and talk about the hurt he had experienced in childhood. “I finally let those secrets out. I took that risk and when I let it all out, I felt relief. It was like the weight was taken off my shoulders. I haven’t looked back since.”

While he was in treatment, Kivell began volunteering every night in the shelter. Once he had completed his year-long program, he was hired on by Harbour Light as a shelter worker. “It was the knowledge that you have the opportunity to change someone’s life that drew me into shelter work,” he said.

He has just been promoted to the position of shelter coordinator, where he helps to oversee the staff and operations of the Harbour Light shelters. “It’s so new to me. My whole life I’ve always been told what to do. Now I’m in a position where I am the one mentoring people,” he said.

Image provided by The Salvation Army

Image courtesy of The Salvation Army

Kivell now has a wife and two young sons, ages seven and nine, who he said are a constant blessing in his life. “They are the best things that have ever happened to me. I do everything that I can to make sure that they don’t have to go without,” he said.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity to give my kids what I never got growing up, which is unconditional love.”

Image courtesy of The Salvation Army

Vancity Buzz is a proud sponsor of The Salvation Army.

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