At first it seemed like the Neighbourhood Ministry was just another bandaid solution to the huge issue of homelessness in Vancouver. We distributed small ziplock bags of snacks, toiletries and socks to the homeless on the West Side. We met people where they were. They did not have to listen to a sermon. We listened and let them know someone cares. Over time, we developed relationships with many of the men. We had “regulars” with whom we shared hugs and jokes. We also shared sorrow and provided support when members of the community died. It became clear that this ministry was so much more than just handing out clean socks, and by participating we gained so much more than we gave.
Other Ways to Help
In addition to these twice-weekly interactions, our ministry began to include advocacy and outreach. We became involved in the lives of our street friends in other ways:
• Regularly, a volunteer administered communion to a group of street friends
• We funded dental work for a long-time homeless woman who had recently moved indoors
• Clergy participated in memorial services for street friends who had passed
• We assisted with paperwork and navigating “the system” to obtain income assistance, disability, file taxes and obtain proper identification
• We helped our homeless friends get medical services, arrange appointments and transport
• We attended at public meetings and debates and made presentations to church groups
We wondered, “what next?” Vancouver homeless advocate Judy Graves suggested we help people get into safe, permanent housing being planned for our area; units specifically meant to house homeless people from the neighbourhood. We were an important source of information for the city and BC Housing, since we actually knew the target clients. Over the course of 8 months, we helped about 35 fellows complete lengthy forms and arranged the required interviews with BC Housing and Coast Mental Health. Volunteers helped by providing food or just being there to welcome the fellows and help put them at ease before their interviews. We also served as contact for men who have no fixed address.
This all would not have been possible without the relationships built over the years. We have become a strong and knowledgeable voice at the table, and continue to monitor and collaborate as tenancy decisions are made. We have developed relationships with other local volunteer organizations such as the Kits Community Centre showers program and St. Mark’s Emergency Shelter, and with area outreach services like the UBC Family Practice, the City of Vancouver and Provincial housing officials.
As part of this new initiative the Neighbourhood Ministry received a grant from the Diocese to hire a theological student to help coordinate the work. In September 2011 Jessica Bean was hired. Her duties include documenting our program so we will be able to share what we’ve done with other groups, and working with Coast Mental Health to discern what we can do to support former homeless men now living in supportive housing. Jessica does not do any of the activities currently done by the ‘indoor’ and ‘outdoor’ teams – we still need donations and volunteers.
In October 2011, twelve of our ‘regulars’ from the Neighbourhood Ministry were accepted into the new supportive housing unit at Dunbar and 16th. These were the most in need of housing – men in their 50’s and 60’s who had been on the streets for many years. In November, at the Kitsilano Community Center, the guys signed their rental agreements. We provided food and support at this joyous celebration.
We received a brilliant suggestion from a parishioner at St. Phillips. She knew many of our neighbours moving into the new housing would have little in the way of personal possessions and quite possibly nothing “new” to call their very own. She wanted to welcome them with the gift of beautiful hand-made bed throws. Parishioners were asked to knit 9 inch squares of washable wool, using any pattern and colours. Several ‘sewing bees’ were organized to socialize while assembling the squares.
A Successful Move-In
On December 1, 2011 the move-in was finally complete. So much of the work, kindness and caring given by our volunteers these past years shone in the eyes of these men. Most spent the night just looking at their new surroundings, venturing out to knock on a friend’s door now and then. Some were blessed by visits from family. One of our volunteers brought communion…his regular Thursday visit, but in a new spot.
The folks from the Kits Community Centre showers program provided breakfast for those moving in that day. They had purchased several sets of brand new clothes for each of them. Most of the guys chose to toss the clothes they were wearing, feeling this was part of the “fresh start” they were seeking.
The staff at the apartments – Coast Mental Health employees – are a group of caring and enthusiastic young men and women eager to make a difference in the lives of their tenants. They connected with the guys instantly. The apartments are beautifully laid out, with lots of common space to encourage interaction and friendship.
We had asked for donations of household items from five congregations. The staff laid out the items in two rooms, and the guys spent two days coming and going, nabbing a coffee maker here, stack of towels there. There were also hand-painted pictures and letters from the children of the parishes, and of course the hand-made blankets.
Although twelve fellows have moved into Dunbar, we continue to support them by helping with their transition, staying connected, offering fellowship and opportunities through the church and in the community.
We continue to reach out to those on the streets. There will always be a need for the street ministry – even if everyone we are connected with today gets housed (a big “if”), new people in need of our friendship and support will move to our neighbourhood. We are now in a transition phase as we build new connections.
We have been so blessed by this ministry and we pray that God will guide its future. The love, support and selfless giving of all our volunteers have been the back bone of our success. We hope to continue to transform more and more parishioners and community members as we expand the opportunities to offer their hearts and talents to this ministry.
Links to Articles about the Neighbourhood ministry