First United Church offers a real solution to homelessness
In a recent news release, the BC Ministry of Housing and Social Development indicated the government will continue funding the three Vancouver Heat Shelters, including funding 200 spaces at First United Church in the Downtown Eastside at 320 East Hastings Street. First United has been called “home” by up to 300 homeless people nightly for the last year.
From the First United website, “We have been hard at work creating a place of inclusion and belonging that aims to banish the alienation and marginalization that plague too many in Canada’s poorest urban neighbourhood. Only through the restoration of that spiritual sense of belonging can true healing and hope take root.”
When I spoke with Reverend Ric Matthews of First United last week, he indicated that the church is launching a capital campaign to raise money to build the type of housing that will be more successful than simply building “warehousing” with separate professional services accessed elsewhere.
The plan of the “Hope Lives Here” project is to replace the current church with a new building by 2013. It will offer basic needs, counselling, advocacy, pre and post detoxification help, an infirmary, a dentist, and a child’s presence as well as housing.
There will be an official announcement about this project hopefully next week.
This new United Church building, as yet unnamed, will offer four solutions to address the continuum of the homelessness issue.
There will be a 150-bed informal shelter called an indoor “place of refuge” for those people who do not want help. These are the people who are angry and distrustful, stuck in their addictive dysfunction. In these plans, this group can come and go as they wish with no obligations or control. They will be left alone to get on with their own lives. They will be provided with food, showers, a place to sleep, warmth and safety as are the 250-300 current residents at First United.
The second group of 40 homeless people may be willing to explore the possibility of some help. They will be given their own formal shelter beds with dividers, a locker and stability through weekly conversations with a helper.
The third group will live in a 40-bed facility of supportive housing with treatment. They will get 24 hour care and support for the detox regime they need over 18 months to two years. During that time, their lives will stabilize and their issues will be resolved.
The fourth section of this new building will consist of 60 units of social housing for those going into independent living at the welfare rental rate of $375. This will be after successful treatment when their need for help has decreased. This section is intended to be a diverse population of individuals, couples, youth and elders. 10% of the units will go to people who could afford to live elsewhere but choose to live here. This will ensure the profile of an inclusive community rather than an exclusive, marginalized community as is now present at the Church and a big part of the problem of homelessness.
In a recent news release, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson called the Heat Shelter funding announcement by the Ministry “…great news for the people of Vancouver and especially for our most vulnerable citizens…" saying it fits in with his goal of ending homelessness by 2015. The Mayor, BC Housing, and Rich Coleman of the Ministry all support this housing initiative of the First United Church board which is under the leadership and vision of Ric Matthews.
Ric indicated that the launching of this campaign is a call for bold and courageous leadership to step forward not just from the Province and governments but from all sectors of society to build housing for healing people within the context of a true community. This is the missing piece needed to solve homelessness.
The non-profit Streetohome Foundation echoes Ric’s call for all sectors of society to be involved. This Foundation, comprised of prominent Vancouver businessmen and women like Frank Giustra, contributed $500,000 in December 2008 to help open the Heat Shelters, including funding for First United.
The first three guiding principles of the Foundation are
- Housing is a basic need
- Shelter is not housing
- Solving homelessness is a collective responsibility
This group has committed to raising $50 million annually over the next ten years to help end homelessness in Vancouver by building “safe, decent, affordable” social housing.
The cost to build the facility at First United is set at $31 million. There is currently a plan underway to spend $450 million on a casino in downtown Vancouver. No one could argue that far greater benefit would result from this money being spent on this new “Hope Lives Here” building in the DTES.
As a prominent Vancouver businessman and community leader, Milton Wong’s current passion is revitalizing the DTES. He, like Ric, has called for a “community corporation” to be put in place, overseeing DTES development with real participation and ownership by the people who live there in order to create a comprehensive community plan. Wong’s Building Community Society supports this planned facility at First United. His comment about gentrification was that it was all right “…but only so long as it's done respectfully, occurs without displacement and stabilizes the community. Less-wealthy people have a right, they have an actual right, to this space as well. You cannot and should not arbitrarily cause them to move out.” He has also mentioned the need for a solution based on community and that “change must be led by the people.”
I asked Ric why the First United Church model would work better to solve homelessness when the millions and millions of dollars that have been poured into the DTES every year have not generated permanent solutions.
He said that the community work being done now addresses an exclusive DTES community of the marginalized with “solutions” like shelters. This marginalizing is in itself an underlying part of the problem. As well, Ric said that current solutions are carried out in isolation through separate agencies rather than using a holistic approach that works with the context of “community” and “we”, not “them”. As well, this proposed facility will offer the needed services to holistically address all the issues, like medical care and mental health, which underlie poverty.
Ric mentioned that even after treatment, homeless people do not fit in and still feel strange in mainstream society so they return to the DTES because that is where a true community exists. The ultimate and most important solution is not just treatment and care so the homeless “fit” into mainstream society. The underlying problem is with mainstream society itself.
He went on to say that homelessness is about the underlying alienation and dislocation that is a disconnection from self, family, society, earth, and our spiritual center. This problem of alienation and dislocation is a problem that underlies neighbourhoods in cities all over the planet. Ric believes that this disconnection must be addressed first through offering an inclusive, diverse, caring community context before any other permanent solutions to homelessness can be found. Warehousing and shelters do not offer community. This new facility that First United is building does. It is grounded in, and informed by, the community that already exists in the DTES as a community.
This new building is not just for the DTES. Ric stated that it is a place that will define community for all of us in Vancouver, giving a concrete and visible form to what exists already. He mentioned that people from all over the Lower Mainland come here with their gifts and needs. They are often surprised to find they receive as much or more than they give. This reciprocal, “level playing field” exchange seems to be at the heart of true community.
The potential that lies with this United Church development is flipping the story from calling the DTES the greatest problem to calling it the greatest solution…for us all.