The Catholic Charities Men’s Hostel has been operating in Downtown Vancouver for 60 years, first opening during a winter storm Nov. 14, 1959. RCAV Archives

Hostel marks 60 years of serving needy

By  Agnieszka Ruck, Canadian Catholic News
  • November 24, 2019

VANCOUVER -- A Vancouver shelter is celebrating nearly 22,000 nights of offering warm, safe places for homeless men to sleep.

The Catholic Charities Men’s Hostel opened its doors for the first time during a sudden winter storm Nov. 14, 1959. At the time, it had 60 beds, all being occupied with men who had nowhere else to go to flee the cold. It also had a cafeteria, a chapel and other amenities.

Now 60 years old, the hostel is still located on the third floor of a former industrial building at 150 Robson St. and still doing what it does best.

“All God’s children: that’s what we’re about here,” said guest advocate Keith Ostertag, who has worked at the hostel for more than half of its life and seen it evolve to what it is today.

“When I first started here, I was working front-line. All we did was give them a bedroll and sign them in and that was it,” said Ostertag, who got the job at age 19. “Now we’re opening up more with the guests one-to-one and getting to know their needs and goals and work with them.”

As a guest advocate, he learns the unique situations of the shelter’s occupants and helps them set goals, like learning to save money or finding stable housing. Showers, haircuts and weekly laundry are also on site, as are some small meals and the occasional Mass by a visiting priest.

Shockingly, about half of the hostel’s population is over the age of 55. Ostertag said many seniors who find themselves on the streets are struggling to cope with low pensions, sky-high housing prices and sometimes addictions to alcohol, drugs or (most often for seniors) gambling.

The hostel’s roots go back to 1957, when the Archdiocese of Vancouver purchased the old warehouse on the corner of Robson and Cambie Streets. Various archdiocesan offices opened on the first and second floors, while then-Archbishop Martin Johnson called for plans to open a shelter for homeless men aged 18-65 on the third floor.

The committee on that project was disbanded when Franciscan brothers from Minneapolis agreed to move to Vancouver and take over operation of the shelter. They were going to call it St. Francis Hostel.

Not long after the brothers arrived in September 1959, though, they had to abandon the project and return home due to a lack of vocations.

News of a fierce arctic wind set to hit Vancouver that November had the archdiocese scrambling to open the hostel’s doors. Within three days, Mike Whelan from the St. Vincent de Paul Salvage Bureau and others turned the third floor of the warehouse into a furnished shelter with eight staff and 60 beds. The snow hit on Nov. 13 and St. Francis Hostel was open the next day.

The name was eventually changed to Catholic Charities Men’s Hostel, but director Scott Small said in its 60 years it has never lost its purpose of serving some of Vancouver’s most needy, no matter what their background or religion, in the spirit of St. Francis.

Small said when the hostel opened it was on the leading edge of innovative ways to serve the homeless. Now, the building is nearly a century old, operating at maximum capacity with 125 beds, and in need of new washrooms, office spaces and private rooms.

It’s also not very friendly to the dozen or so guests a day with walkers and canes who are forced to climb three flights of stairs.

Plans have been in the works for some time to relocate the hostel, though few details are available. “We’re all eager for a move,” said Small.

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