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Mark Brand

May 3, 2013 by Speakers' Spotlight

Is Mark Brand The Face Of Change?

Social entrepreneur and restauranteur Mark Brand has just launched “A Better Life Foundation,” to raise funds to provide nutritious meals to those in assisted living and single room occupancy hotels in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side:

The tide of business is shifting toward a more holistic community approach that goes beyond the shareholder bottom line.

On the surface, it could appear that business models involving the “undesirable” elements of a neighbourhood are doomed to fail.

Typically, non-profit charities and for-profit ventures run a parallel course never to intersect.

But that’s changing….

Mark Brand chose to set up shop in the poorest postal code in Canada and then turned the traditional business concept on its head.

As images of impoverished, marginalized and addicted Downtown Eastside residents flashed on a screen behind him, the superstar social entrepreneur took the stage at Hotel 540 last week.

Brand is a 37 years old, hip, eager and unafraid — and he has made undeniable waves in his Vancouver neighbourhood.

“My heart and my mind stay open all the time,” he told a packed crowd of small-business owners.

That might have something to do with his upbringing. Born in Scotland, his engineer father moved to Canada
to work for the oil industry when he was a child.

In Dartmouth, N.S., Brand saw that “people learned to do a lot with a little.”

In the 1990s, he followed his dad to Nigeria at the height of civil unrest. He saw how people survived on very little.

Then he found his way to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which he said has a magnetic pull on him.

Two years ago, Brand bought the iconic Save-On-Meats butcher shop and restaurant on East Hastings (a fixture of low-priced meats since 1957 known for its neon sign of a pig in flight).

He also owns 11 other businesses in Gastown and the Downtown Eastside.

His encounters with down-and-out residents compelled him to take the forefront of innovative and sometimes controversial programs meant to help the poor and addicted access food, work, shelter and ultimately, a better life.

In fact, he and Canuck Place co-founder Joanne Griffiths recently revived a charitable foundation named just that — A Better Life.

Its goal is to create a self-sustaining meal program for people in assisted-living and low-income housing.

Brand now famously offers a program where individuals buy tokens for $2.25 to give to panhandlers who can redeem them for Save-On-Meats breakfast sandwiches.

An estimated 40,000 tokens will be bought this year, said Brand. And the program will soon expand to include durable, waterproof, military-grade socks.

He’s also established a “barrier” employment program, hiring 15 people so far after helping them through barriers to employment such as extreme poverty, mental illness and drug addiction.

Brand’s not shy about discussing the massive drug problem on the streets outside his businesses.

“We can talk about it,” he said. “Crack addicts, heroin addicts, meth addicts — human beings. Not a commodity, not a problem, not a metric — human beings.”

He tells the story of “Football” Mike Haggarty, an intimidating looking street dweller who Brand would spot every morning sweeping the street.

As time went on, he grew increasingly curious about the man, but was too afraid to approach him. One snowy morning, Brand saw him huddled on a piece of cardboard.

He approached him and asked if he could help, to which Haggarty responded “yes.”

After bringing him indoors and sharing a meal, Haggarty told Brand about his trouble with the law (he spent 80 per cent of his life in jail for non-violent crimes, mostly related to his heroin addiction) and his Asperger syndrome, which created his repugnance for dirtiness, especially bugs.

He was huddled on the street because his single-residence occupancy room had become infested with bed bugs and he couldn’t face sleeping there.

When he finally returned, all his possessions had been incinerated — including his family photos.

“His last shred of attachment to humanity,” said Brand.

Brand helped Haggarty get stabilized with clothes, money and housing. Throughout the process, there were plenty of nights spent with him at St. Paul’s Hospital and phone calls when Haggarty went missing. But that’s real friendship and engagement, said Brand.

Today, Haggarty lives with his daughter and two-year-old grandson, who he brings to school each morning. He also works for Brand full time.

Brand’s efforts have made news across Canada and got the attention of the Oprah Winfrey Network, which aired Gastown Gamble, a reality show starring Brand. Dragons’ Den co-host

Arlene Dickson and Brand are working out an investment after he was featured in season two of CBC’s The Big Decision. Even U.S. musician Prince, who last week donated 100 tickets to his show at The Vogue theatre for A Better Life Foundation, has jumped on the bandwagon.

Brand’s token programs also recently received high praise from the Vancouver Police Department.

“Too many times to count when I speak with one of these individuals they are thrilled because they found some discarded pizza or other foodstuff in a garbage,” stated a VPD email to Brand. “When we hand out tokens, I
believe we show these people that they are not faceless and they have not been forgotten by the society.

“They are not regarded by the police and society as a nuisance.”

But he’s also making waves as the new kid on the block among people who may well see the Downtown Eastside as their last refuge after being priced out of every other neighbourhood, and when they end up on the streets, shunned for being “undesirable.”

Brand’s efforts are causing an anti-gentrification backlash — big time.

After opening high-end restaurants in low-income neighbourhoods — including across from Pigeon Park, a drug-dealing landmark — he was vilified by some.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let a small business come into my community and tell me, ‘You don’t belong here,’ ” said a member of the Downtown Eastside Not For Developers Coalition during a meeting Brand attended in February last year.

Last month an anti-gentrification hunger strike began outside PiDGiN for promoting “poverty tourism,” accompanied by spotlights aimed at diners through the windows. (Last week, organizers received a letter from the VPD warning them that it’s illegal to obstruct, interrupt or interfere “with any person in the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property.”)

His token program was also criticized for “poor-bashing” when the accompanying press release stated it solved the “dilemma” people face when giving money to people on the street because donors can “rest assured” their money would go toward food.

“This press release cuts straight to the core of our society’s distrust of low-income people: those with money believe themselves better equipped to make decisions on behalf of those without money,” wrote Peter Driftmeier for the Downtown Eastside Right to Food zine.

Also last month, the famous Save-On-Meats sandwich board was stolen and used as a prop for an anarchist group’s “class warfare,” which promises to remove the capitalists from the neighbourhood.

The purported thief posed for a photo behind the sandwich board with a covered face and fingers in a victory sign.

Always undaunted, Brand shrugs off the criticism, pointing to the good his social ventures accomplish.

And ever socially entrepreneurial, he turned the sign theft into a benefit for residents of the Rainier Hotel women’s shelter, which recently lost significant funding and was forced to drop its treatment programs.

He had an identical sandwich board built, but added a silhouette of a dark figure with fingers raised in victory sign. The silhouette’s face is cut out and for each passerby who posed as the “anarchist” and tweeted the photo, Brand vowed to donate a breakfast meal to the women’s shelter.

Brand received a standing ovation in Kamloops. He told the crowd his programs can be transported to any town or city as long as people are willing to “buck the system.”

By Sylvie Paillard/Kamloops News