To mark a mother’s death, cookies, gloves and a message of hope on the Downtown Eastside

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Friday marked the end of a long year for Chelsea Brent but one she wanted to end on a positive note.

It was the one-year anniversary of her mother, Tracey Gundersen, dying alone in a Downtown Eastside apartment. 

To honour her mother’s memory, Brent and two of Gundersen’s friends walked through the neighbourhood and distributed 150 care packages.

They contained warm gloves, homemade cookies and handwritten cards, each unique, with uplifting words for marginalized people living in the community: a reminder they aren’t alone and that they matter.

“[My mother] did tell me when she was alive that she didn’t belong in my world,” Brent, 26, said.

Chelsea Brent walks along Hastings Street carrying care packages and a photo of her mother, Tracey Gundersen, to speak with marginalized people on the Downtown Eastside. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

“Having a mother say that to me was hard. At the same time, it kind of inspired me … because I don’t want anyone to think they don’t belong.”

On Nov. 8 2018, 56-year-old Gundersen, who lived with addiction, called 911 after she started bleeding uncontrollably from an abscess. 

Paramedics spent 35 minutes trying to reach her side, their efforts stymied by security measures in her social housing building.

Tracey Gundersen died after bleeding profusely in her Downtown Eastside apartment. It took paramedics 35 minutes to get to her side, spurring a review of her case by the Ministry of Health. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

For Brent, that day sparked a year mourning her mother’s death while also pushing for authorities to investigate her treatment. Her efforts led to a Ministry of Health review of the case and changes recommended to B.C.’s 911 system.

Her goal now is to spread a positive message on the Downtown Eastside to fight the stigma and isolation her mother felt deeply during her short life.

Watch as Chelsea Brent meets people on the Downtown Eastside:

Chelsea Brent meets people on the Downtown Eastside to deliver a positive message in memory of her mother. 0:51

‘These are real people’

Gundersen lived on the Downtown Eastside for decades, addicted to drugs. 

Brent was raised by her grandparents since she was six years old and would see her mother infrequently. She said her mother felt judged and ashamed whenever she left the Downtown Eastside.

Tracey Gundersen in a photo with her grandson. Chelsea Brent said her mother needed some convincing to pose for the photo. (Chelsea Brent/ supplied)

She looked different. She was missing teeth. Even convincing her to have her photo taken with her own grandson was tough.

But, Brent added, Gundersen had a “wonderful” community in the Downtown Eastside with many friends, some of whom she met on her walk Friday to remember her mother.

“Some people are very cold and hard down here,” said Leah Trottier, 49, who was once Gundersen’s neighbour. “[Gundersen] was a very kind, giving girl.”

Douglas Satterthwaite, 59, also knew Gundersen for her kindness and said he was struck by her daughter’s gesture to hand out packages.

“This is the best thing I’ve ever seen,” Satterthwaite said, sitting in a walker outside the Savoy Pub on East Hastings Street. “A lot of people don’t do [this].”

Douglas Satterthwaite holds a care package from Chelsea Brent. Satterthwaite says the Downtown Eastside needs more affordable housing. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Tom Quirk, 70, met Brent and echoed her mother’s feelings of being judged by outsiders.

“People go by on the bus here, and they look, and they shudder,” Quirk said. “But if they got off the bus and talked to people, they’d find out they were talking to their son, or brother, or father or mother. These are real people down here.”

Tom Quirk, left, poses for a photo with Chelsea Brent. Quirk said he moved to the neighbourhood after developing Hepatitis C. Since then, the former dockworker has become immersed in photography. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

City looking at changes

An external review into Gundersen’s death called for better communication and coordination among call-takers, dispatchers, ambulance and fire — and for firefighters to attend all medical calls where access might be an issue.

The City of Vancouver is now looking into how to improve access to apartment-type buildings as well.

A motion tabled by Coun. Melissa de Genova Wednesday at a committee meeting called for staff to look into how first responders can better access locked multi-unit buildings, possibly through a Bluetooth system or a punch-in code at front doors.

The motion passed unanimously and Brent hopes such a system could prevent deaths like her mother’s.

Her goal for now is to change perceptions about people in the Downtown Eastside.

“They do matter and they are important,” she said. “They don’t deserve the blind eye and the cold shoulder they often get.”

A branded tote bag and care packages from Chelsea Brent. (Liam Britten/CBC)

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