What began as an attempt by a few to help the homeless in the west side has evolved into a large group of volunteers who've helped secure housing for some of the city's most vulnerable

Suzanne Ahearne, Special To The Vancouver Sun
Published: Saturday, December 17, 2011
The Westside Neighbourhood Ministry began in a very unassuming way - with an early morning walk, a care package and a prayer.
   Four years ago, Don Lamb moved to Vancouver from New Hampshire to retire with his partner. They settled in the west-side neighbourhood of Dunbar and joined St. Philip's Anglican Church.
   Back home, he'd worked for many years doing outreach work for people with AIDS. By the time he moved to Canada, he was tired. He was looking for some peace and quiet and a comfortable pew, says the 67-year-old.
   But that was before he took his first walk along the railway tracks with fellow Anglican Vicki Potter, sheepishly offering cans of tuna, fruit, warm socks and handshakes to homeless men sleeping out near Broadway and Arbutus at a camp they called Three Trees.
   Neither he nor the others in the fledgling Westside Neighbourhood Ministry - now composed of 25 volunteers from St. Philip's, St. Helen's and St. Anselm's Anglican churches - were to know what those first tentative forays into outreach in Point Grey, Dunbar and Kitsilano would lead to.
  They would not only transform their own lives, but bridge a social-service gap that had left dozens of the city's oldest and most vulnerable homeless people in the cold and out of the housing loop.
   The three trees are gone now - cut down when the local IGA was demolished to make way for a condo and retail development - and so are most of the men who were regulars at the camp. One moved to housing in the east side, while a few joined others in a nearby alcove.
   Last year, one of the men died; his two brothers and their nephew are among the 11 homeless men who moved into the first of two new west-side supportive housing complexes funded by city and provincial housing dollars, at Dunbar and 17th.
   Even before Vancouver's first homeless count in 2002, the highly dispersed population of older, chronically unsheltered people (mostly between 40 and 60 years old) have been on the city's radar.
   A few had their names on the BC Housing registry - an essential first step to getting into social or supportive housing - but that was about it.
   "Nobody was pushing for them," Lamb explained. And because such a tiny proportion of city and provincial housing outreach resources was being allocated to the west side, most of the homeless had simply fallen through the cracks.
   In the summer of 2010, something serendipitous happened that broke the status quo.
   Three women were at the centre of the change: Judy Graves, head of the city's tenant assistance program; Penny Rogers, coordinator of the homeless shower and breakfast program at Kitsilano Community Centre and of the St. Mark's Extreme Weather Shelter; and Vicki Potter, a parishioner of St. Helen's Anglican Church and the force behind the Westside Neighbourhood Ministry.
   By this time, Lamb and Potter had no fewer than 25 volunteers working together, gathering clothing donations, preparing care packages and walking the streets in pairs at night or before dawn twice a week. This was the best way, they discovered, to find people "at home" in the doorways or garages where they curled up for the night.
   During the previous three years, the Neighbourhood Ministry had gained the trust of most of the men and the one or two women living in the parks and alleys of the west side. They'd figured out who the street families were and had a good understanding of the seasonal migrations of homeless in the area.
   They had also discovered that many were reaching the threshold for tolerating life outside; the physical and mental toll of decades of alcoholism (for many, but not all), depression and sleeping on cold pavement was hitting a lot of people all at once.
   At one of their community meetings, Potter told Graves - a 35-year advocate of the homeless at the city and regular adviser to their group - that the Neighbourhood Ministry wanted to do more.
   Graves gave her some good news and two pieces of advice. She told her that two new supportive housing complexes were slated for the west side. And she told her how the Westside Ministry could help some of their homeless neighbours access that housing.
   "She gave us a mission," recalls Potter, a wiry, twinklyeyed mid-50s bureaucrat who volunteers almost as many hours as she works for pay.
   Graves told Potter to start documenting the personal histories of the homeless as a first step in the BC Housing waiting list process.
   When they told the homeless people there was housing in the works, said Potter, there was mostly disbelief and a glimmer of hope. In three months, they had 35 people documented.
   Graves's second piece of advice: "You've got to meet Penny Rogers."
Rogers is a longtime peace and social justice advocate and parishioner of St. Augustine's Catholic Church. Ten years ago, on another of Graves's suggestions, she'd started a Saturday morning shower and breakfast program for the homeless at Kitsilano Community Centre.
   Potter and Rogers got together and realized they were serving many of the same people. They consolidated their lists, their stories and their efforts. And they got bolder.
   A meeting was planned that turned out to be a real tideturner for the homeless on the west side. Potter and Rogers found themselves at a table with four Anglican clergy, BC Housing, the City of Vancouver, Streetohome Foundation, as well as MPA (the Vancouverbased mental health advocacy and housing group) and Coast Mental Health, the non-profit management partners for the supportive housing complexes being built at Seventh and Fir and at 17th and Dunbar, respectively.
   Judy Graves was central to that meeting. She explained some of the problems experienced by poorly resourced housing outreach workers on the west side. First, there was the challenge of building relationships with longtime homeless people who often have a distrust of authority and bureaucracy.
   Then, if they got people on the waiting list, keeping them on was tough, she told them. If applicants don't check in with BC Housing every six months, they're knocked off the list.
   They can't leave messages or phone, so when housing finally came up, outreach workers often couldn't find them. That any homeless people made it into housing at all was no small miracle, she said.
   Everyone really "got it," recalls Rogers. "There was an acknowledgment that you can't just shove everyone [homeless] into the Downtown Eastside. You have to house them where they live and it's the responsibility of neighbourhoods to take care of their neighbours," she said.
   Graves' premise: the Neighbourhood Ministry's intimate knowledge of the homeless and their peregrinations, supported by Rogers and her programming, could help the housing process enormously.
   So, they were entrusted with the task of turning the informal pen-and-paper documentation into official BC Housing applications.
  And so the Westside Neighbourhood Ministry of form-fillers was born.
   As they came to realize in the last year-and-a-half, this was no small task. Filling in the basic form (13 pages) plus the required supplemental form for homeless applicants (nine pages) plus an additional application for each housing project, is a daunting task for everyone involved.
   Apart from the time involved in going through such prodigious paperwork, the most time-consuming aspect is the three-steps-forward, two-steps-back nature of the application process. In order to process the forms, many need to reapply for long-lost birth certificates, get medical assessments or apply for disability benefits.
   Without the one-on-one handholding method advocated by Graves (whom Rogers calls a "minor Mother Teresa"), the likelihood of any of these people successfully navigating this on their own is next to nil, said Potter. Especially given multiple barriers such as low literacy rates, alcohol dependency and physical and/or mental health issues.
   Much of the paperwork now gets started by Potter at Rogers's showers program on Saturday mornings; volunteers from the Neighbourhood Ministry follow up in the street.
   In the spring of 2011, BC Housing and Coast Mental Health allocated 12 of 51 units in the 17th and Dunbar complex for the west-side homeless. (Five units were allocated to Yaffa Housing Society, five to disabled applicants on the BC Housing waiting list and the remaining to Coast clients.)
   The Neighbourhood Ministry, Rogers and Coast drew up a list, prioritizing age and health condition.
   So far, 11 of the 12 from the priority list are inside. They are still trying to coax the oldest and frailest inside.
   One has already gone to a rehab program in preparation for longneeded hip-replacement surgery. One has started writing poetry again. One, a self-confessed "hermit" who spent his last weeks outside fighting off taggers and bullies in Kerrisdale, says he is going to sleep for 30 days and then start planning the rest of his life.
   Dana Glover, homeless for 22 years, didn't make it into the Dunbar housing. He's frustrated that the HEAT shelter on 4th Avenue hasn't reopened this year. Like many of the older homeless, he refuses to go to the Downtown Eastside for shelter.
   "I feel like I just can't do another winter ... I'm so depressed," he said. "I love Penny, though. She's got a heart. I know she's trying really hard for me."
   Rogers and Neighbourhood Ministry volunteers are resting up to begin a new tenancy process in January for the 62-unit supportive housing complex at Seventh and Fir to be finished by the end of 2012. Coordinating their efforts with MPA, they are hoping to secure homes for as many as possible of the 20 or so local homeless people they've already got on the BC Housing registry.
   Asked if she ever feels overwhelmed by the role the Westside Neighbourhood Ministry has carved out for itself, Potter doesn't hesitate to say "yes." She doesn't feel the onus should be solely on the government to solve the problem of homelessness, though.
   "If we expect the government to fund everything and do everything," she says, "that takes direct connection and responsibility away from us to be out there building our own communities."
   As Don Lamb packs up his trunk with care packages and donated coats to bring to the estimated 25 to 30 homeless people still out there on the west side, he thinks back to the days before he started his outreach work in Vancouver.
   "I had the same attitude a lot of people have. If I met someone in a doorway with their hat out, I'd throw a coin in and I wouldn't even look at them," he said.
   "But this whole thing has put a humanity and a personality behind each one of these guys. Without this I would probably still be throwing something in their hats but walking right on by."