Inter Faith Discussion on Homelessness
December 17, 2009
First United Church Mission December 31, 2009
Report written by Nancy Hall with support from the End Homeless Now Group at St Andrews Wesley United Church
The Numbers of People in Vancouver Experiencing Homeless. 3
Professional Panel: What is the current shelter system?. 3
Small group discussions. 4
Discussion of the issues: 5
Meeting Evaluation. 6
Thank you!. 6
Appendix 1 Numbers of Homeless People. 8
Appendix 2 Meeting Participants. 10
Figure 1 Draft Network Mapping: What the Faith Community is doing to address homelessness in Vancouver 11
Reverend Ric Matthews welcomed the group and reviewed the context and the goals for the meeting. On Dec 7, 2009 Mayor Robertson convened a group of faith community leaders at City Hall to discuss the need to reduce the gap in support services that currently exist between those who are street homeless (estimated to be 800 people) and the current number of shelter spaces that are available each night. The initial request was for shelter space in the communities of the West End, Mount Pleasant, Kitsilano and Grandview Woodlands.
This follow up meeting was convened because some felt that there needed to be a stronger network to be able to respond quickly if necessary. Part of strengthening the network was to provide individuals from the faith community with more information about the state of homelessness in Vancouver and what the formal and informal service providers are already doing.
The dialogue questions were:
- What are we already doing that could be strengthened?
- What could we add to the extreme weather response?
- Is there interest in forming an interfaith alliance on homelessness to provide systemic advocacy to end homelessness?
Ric gave a prayer and drew the group’s attention to an offering table that was covered in a quilt made of 3000 squares representing the number of supported housing units Vancouver needs. The offering was being made in honor of “Tracey” a woman who died on the streets almost one year ago to the day of this meeting.
31 people attended and their names are attached to this report as Appendix 2. Nancy Hall, the facilitator asked who wasn’t in attendance that should be part of this dialogue and people noted Tenth Ave Alliance (who later came), Judy Graves (who was on vacation), the Homeless Outreach Worker for the City of Vancouver as important to this discussion as well as representatives from the Muslim, Jewish and Sikh faith communities. In discussing why people attended it ranged along a continuum from wanting to learn more about homelessness in the City to learning what others were doing, to organizing to create more pressure to ensure the promised supportive housing gets built.
The Numbers of People in Vancouver Experiencing Homeless
Reverend Matthews read out some statistics that described the diversity of the people experiencing homelessness in Vancouver. He made particular notice of Aboriginal people, families and youth as groups not always considered in permanent supported housing plans. The stats he read out are attached as Appendix 1 to this report.
Professional Panel: What is the current shelter system?
Michael Anhorn, from BC Housing described the current shelter system supported by the Ministry of Housing and Social Development and the City of Vancouver in partnership with various nonprofit organizations such as Look Out, Harbor Light, Rain City and Union Gospel Mission. Year round, Vancouver has approximately 708 shelter beds to support people experiencing homelessness. This includes two shelters for families and one for youth. There is also a Cold Wet Weather shelter strategy where shelters are opened for the winter months providing in Feb 2009 an additional 405 spaces that are usually closed in the summer months. (The shelter provided by the Gathering Place and First Baptist churches alternate nights).
The final layer of emergency response is the extreme weather response. This is coordinated in Vancouver by Grant Gayman from Harbor Light. When extreme weather is declared, Grant coordinates the opening of an additional 6 shelters in Vancouver that provides approximately 365 additional shelter beds. In general, such programs are activated when weather conditions are severe enough to present a substantial threat to the life or health of people experiencing homelessness. The programs, usually invoked when the temperature hits -4 C, are funded by BC Housing, which last year provided $300,000 to Metro Vancouver and $700,000 province wide. These beds however are not fully funded with support service so they rely on community support from volunteers for food and friendship. And of course, the goal is not more shelters but to provide sufficient supportive housing to get individuals into homes. The week before our meeting, Minister Coleman and Mayor Robertson announced an additional $1.2 million dollars to provide approximately 160 emergency shelter beds.
Michael also briefly went over the Housing Matters BC program whereby BC Housing bought up and renovated single ring occupancy hotels in the DTES and other BC communities. In Vancouver 27 hotels have been purchased and are either completely renovated and occupied or in process. The night and day difference in resident’s quality of life was noted by members of the group. These don’t however represent new housing stock as many hotels were full at the time of government purchase.
Dan Garrison from the Housing Centre at the City of Vancouver described the City’s role in working to coordinate the continuum of supported housing in the City including the provision of emergency shelter beds through its 2005 Homeless Action Plan. This plan calls for an additional 3800 supported housing spaces. He commented that the Faith Community could be helpful in supporting City Hall to locate shelters throughout the City. According to the 2008 Homeless Count, there are more homeless people outside of the downtown eastside than in the DTES.) Dan indicated that if we felt it was key for the City to offer emergency shelter beds, the Mayor could use letters of support to counter balance the sometimes negative responses that are reported in the media. He was looking for a broad civic response to support a positive response to the homeless. He noted that the people we were trying to support needed warm clothing and socks as well as food.
Mary Clare Zac, the Director of Social Planning from the City attended to participate in the discussions. She told the group about plans to proceed with neighbourhood organizing around supports to vulnerable people. This could be an opportunity for this group. She also identified Eva Mendes as a resource on Food Security with the City.
Small group discussions
- The groups made a start at outlining what was currently provided by the faith community. (See Figure 1). There is a diversity of responses ranging from permanent housing, to shelter beds, to meals and shower programs. We recognized that this inventory was incomplete due to the absence of a number of faith communities from this meeting. We also need to consider the ongoing work of the Salvation Army and Union Gospel Mission who have complex programs of support ranging from emergency shelter and detox to permanent supported housing. In response to what needs to be strengthened, it was noted we need much more affordable housing and that Canada has lacked a National Housing Plan since 1992, when the program saw up to 2000 units built annually in Vancouver has been cut back to a level where its contribution is minimal. It was noted we not only need more housing but we need family and youth focused housing. We also need supportive housing throughout the city so people are integrated into the wider community. Aboriginal people need more Aboriginal specific housing. The Vancouver plan is short on this. Some noted that better neighbourhood collaboration and partnerships would make providing voluntary service less difficult for the churches that are actively involved. For example, First Baptist noted that they could use additional support for their service and St. Andrews Wesley across the street came up with 12 people who agreed to take respite shifts.
- Is there interest in forming an Interfaith Alliance? There were some positive responses to this idea and others who wanted to get a better understanding of the issues and how an alliance might function before making commitments which they couldn’t do without agreement from their congregation.
Discussion of the issues:
- Poverty: The root cause of so much of homelessness is poverty and while much has been done to make income assistance more accessible, the BC government is yet to engage in a poverty reduction strategy such as those implemented by other provinces such as Ontario and Manitoba. Gregory made reference to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Anti Poverty campaign. For more information see: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/poverty-reduction-plan-bc
- Food: There is quite a bit of work on going in providing food either in the form of regular meals (e.g. Tenth Avenue Alliance, West Point Grey every Thursday night) or serving or taking in meals to the street or shelters (e.g. Temple Shalom, Guru Nanak, Sufi Meditation Group and the Jewish Muslims to First United Church). One person commented that food is often wasted as it is not coordinated and shelter providers have to meet Food Safety standards. Wendy Mendes from the City was identified as a resource person interested in food security issues. Her contact is
- Advocacy: Letters of support for the new shelters: It was important that the Faith Community signal a welcoming attitude towards the new shelters. It was recognized that many are frightened by the sight of people high on drugs. Shelter workers in the HEAT shelters observed less drug use when people were warm, dry and fed.
Action: Ric and Steven agreed to draft a letter that each congregation could send.
- Advocacy: Aboriginal Health: One in three homeless people are of Aboriginal Ancestry and often not connected to their community. Patrick from the Aboriginal Open Door Society (they are working with the Community Court to provide outreach support) noted that there had not been a formal government response to the Frank Paul Inquiry. He felt it urgent that the faith community recognize the systemic racism experienced by Aboriginal people and support change to be more welcoming of indigenous knowledge. He felt there was a need to transform Church culture from the history of the Residential School system.
Action: Discuss this with a broader representation to understand what is going on and what needs to happen. For collective advocacy on this important issue, some participants needed more information about the Frank Paul Inquiry. This can be found at: http://www.frankpaulinquiry.ca/
- Socks: Shelter providers discussed the need for warm socks for people. West Point Grey United specifically fundraises for socks on an ongoing basis. People with street feet are often cold and wet and clean socks are welcome. Ric interjected a different idea by suggesting that much clothing the shelter receives is not usable but good for the conscience of the middle class donors. He thought a laundry would be great for people including those on the street as well as those living in SRO s to wash their clothing.
Action: Steven from the Unitarian Church said he was going to ask his congregation to bring socks so they could be provided to the new shelters.
- Need for a tighter network: There are various levels of collaboration that an interfaith group can take. It can be loose or tight collaboration. People discussed how it is relatively easy to get people to volunteer with concrete help such as providing socks and sandwiches but more challenging to get people to engage in systemic advocacy to address the underlying causes of the epidemic of homelessness in our streets. Others said it was essential that the Faith Community lever the support they already provide to get government to live up to its promises to homelessness. Jonathan Bird noted that the value of faith community services is significant.
Action: The group agreed to meet again and explore this issue. This includes both a city wide network as well as local hubs. The Kitsilano Welcoming Committee (, West Point Grey United, St. Marks Anglican, Canadian Memorial and Uhill United) agreed to email each other and consider how their collaboration could be strengthened especially to consider support for a new emergency shelter on the West Side.
- The need for stronger collaboration: A number of tables discussed the idea of a faith hub where churches in the same neighbour hood (e.g. The Kitsilano Welcoming Committee) could connect to mutually support each other’s actions to end homelessness in our City. This idea needs to be explored further.
- People wanted concrete things to do upon leaving. Some left with concrete action steps; others didn’t. For some it was still a “getting to know you” experience.
- People enjoyed “bouncing ideas” with each other.
- Others enjoyed the discussion at many levels (systemic and individual) and the leadership that kept the discussion moving.
- One person commented they were “amazed at how much work the churches are doing.”
- Several noted it was good to learn about the formal system and what they are doing.
- Do betters: People felt they needed more notice to attend and likely an evening meeting would be better for some people.
Thanks to everyone who came at such short notice and in particular to First United Church and End Homelessness Now from St. Andrews Wesley United Church for organizing and facilitating the meeting.
We adjourned at 12:15 and agreed to meet again early in January.