Surrey MLA Jagrup Brar walks the Downtown Eastside while living in the neighbourhood for two weeks.

Surrey MLA Jagrup Brar walks the Downtown Eastside while living in the neighbourhood for two weeks.

Being Jagrup Brar

Surrey MLA moves poverty experiment to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.



Arriving in his one-room apartment in the Downtown Eastside, Jagrup Brar puts his tofu and milk in a bag, and uses a belt he cinched to a table to dangle it out the window.

The fridge in the 11 foot by 11 foot room is broken and the subzero temperature outside makes for a satisfactory fridge.

He has a mattress on the floor on which he sleeps, a hot plate and a small table. It’s a snug spot that’s relatively warm and dry.

He shares a bathroom with 11 other people living in the single room occupancy (SRO) complex in the country’s poorest postal code.

Brar, who appears thinner and a lot more serious, has just over a week left on his month living on the welfare rate.

The MLA for Surrey-Fleetwood took the Welfare Challenge from a group called Raise the Rates, an anti-poverty group which wants to see higher welfare rates.

Brar says getting a taste of poverty has been life-changing.

The first half of this month, he rented a room in Surrey, and now he’s living in the SRO, right across from Pigeon Park.

He spent the first few days speaking with town hall groups and organizations for single mothers.

Poverty in the Downtown Eastside runs a lot deeper than it does in Surrey, he says.

Brar says he’s operating at about 50 per cent mental capacity, due to malnutrition and lack of sleep.

“I couldn’t sleep very well last night, I only slept about four hours,” Brar says

To get a shower ahead of the pack, he wakes up at 4:30 a.m.

He began the month with $610 – the amount of money welfare gives a person who is looking for a job. After rent, that money quickly disappeared.

By Friday he was down to $8.50. He will soon be broke.

From there, it’s to the street, to line up for services.

“I feel right now that crisis is all over me,” he says. “I’m running out of money very quickly.”

He’s already out of shaving cream and soap, but says he’ll be spending his last few bucks on food.

“I will be out of money by the end of the week sometime,” Brar said. “Then, I’m on the street, and I have to go line up, where people line up when they don’t have any money.”

His biggest challenge is keeping up his nutrition.

“The biggest challenge right now is hunger, I’m hungry all the time,” Brar says. “I’m vegetarian for the last month, by the way. I can’t afford to buy meat, and I can’t afford to cook meat, because I don’t have the tools.”

With just over a week left, Brar sees something the poverty-stricken around him don’t – an end to the hardship.

On Feb. 1, Brar will come back to his warm Surrey home to his family and well-paying job.

Brar realizes the limitations that creates to the exercise, but says the last month has changed his perspective forever.

He wants to bring about change when he returns to the legislature, but says that has to be done responsibly.

He’ll be taking his experience over the last month into the NDP caucus to develop a comprehensive poverty reduction plan.

“With clear targets and timelines,” Brar says. “I think that’s the responsible way to do it.”

Doing nothing, is clearly not a choice, Brar said.

Boaz Joseph photos below: