A homeless person finds warmth from steam emerging from a street vent. CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters

Vancouver rethinking homeless solutions

By  Nicholas Elbers, Canadian Catholic News
  • October 29, 2022

VANCOUVER -- The oft-told story of the child who throws starfish back into the ocean because “it matters to that one” is the kind of organic growth that Bob Buckham hopes to see when ministering to the homeless in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The Archdiocese of Vancouver’s coordinator of service and justice, along with assistant coordinator Angela Veters, spoke at an evening of networking sponsored by the archdiocese to help connect individuals and organizations involved in charitable activity among Vancouver’s neediest populations.

“How can we assist you?” Buckham asked delegates of the dozen organizations who attended the workshop at the John Paul II Pastoral Centre. “And how can you assist each other?”

The meeting was designed to help the organizations network so they can share information to respond to problems blocking their success. The organizations are mostly affiliated with the archdiocese.

Also attending were representatives of the Catholic Women’s League, Knights of Columbus, and St. Vincent de Paul Society.

The Archdiocese of Vancouver has begun considering the possibility that it might build and operate its own affordable-housing project in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Sean Rodriguez, the archdiocese’s director of construction and property renewal, told an archdiocese-sponsored networking evening among agencies serving the needy that discussion surrounding such a development is still in the “dreaming” phase, but that such a project could serve as a model for larger infrastructure in the future.

The housing idea imagines an 11-storey building with 105 affordable units, as well as retail space and other amenities.

Rodriguez stressed that it will be years before the plan might move forward but that the project illustrates how the archdiocese is looking to maximize the usefulness of its existing assets and properties in service of the Church’s mission of charity.

Rodriguez said he believes that the archdiocese must do more than simply update its current infrastructure.

Two First Nations consultants, Kevin Barlow and Clint Barton, were in attendance and their input Buckham said was important because of the large number of Indigenous people among the homeless.

Highlighting problems with the current healing infrastructure, Barlow noted that despite the impact that drugs and alcohol have on the Aboriginal community there are still no addiction centres led by Indigenous people. Relying on others for healing leads to two problems, he said. Because of their experiences with Christians who administered residential schools, Aboriginal people may be apprehensive or hostile to Christian organizations. Working with non-Aboriginal organizations also cuts off Indigenous people from their culture. Nature is at the core of that culture and needs to be integrated into healing programs, he said.

Common challenges faced by organizations that minister to victims of prostitution and sex trafficking include reaching women when COVID has driven most sex work online, making it nearly impossible for street ministries to reach women on a nightly basis.

Catholic Street Missionaries founder Mildred Moy said volunteers now text women they can’t meet in person but getting access to their numbers is a struggle.

Participants were also concerned about the growing trend among doctors to prescribe opiates to people recovering from drug addiction. 

“How can we run an abstinence-based program” if the doctors see nothing wrong with giving the people in care prescription opiates, said Luke 15 director Nigel Vincent. “They can’t do abstinence-based programs if they are essentially high (on prescription opiates).”

A problem for nearly every organization is a lack of volunteers. Even before the pandemic, organizations were finding it difficult to attract young people to replace their aging volunteer base. COVID exacerbated things by disconnecting organizations from their older volunteers.

Buckham said the archdiocese is working on a program to provide potential helpers for any organization needing assistance. 

Attendees also heard from Dr. Julian Somers, distinguished professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, who urges “Housing First” solutions to homelessness that focus on providing “normal housing” as the first intervention to get the homeless back on their feet. These programs do not replace traditional counselling, recovery and work programs but focus on building self-worth as a means to recovery and community integration.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.