Charity Spotlight: This post was provided by Heather Forbes of First United Church Community Ministry Society as part of our ongoing charity spotlight series.
First United Church Community Ministry Society provides a wide range of support to people experiencing homelessness and poverty in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Rooted in the neighbourhood for over 125 years, First United affirms the worth of individuals, empowers communities and works for social justice.
Life in the Downtown Eastside
For the folks in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, life is difficult all year round. People that live here struggle with exceptionally high rates of poverty, mental illness and histories of abuse than other people living in Canada. The impact of these challenges is compounded by the effects of stress and social isolation that come from a life without a secure place to call home.
The stresses of life are felt even more acutely at this time of year. As the weather chills, those who have been living outside must seek more appropriate shelter. As Thanksgiving arrives, with Christmas on its heels, people whose personal circumstances keep them separated from the ones they love often experience despair. Despite the heartaches and hardships, the men, women and families of the Downtown Eastside come together with determination, strength and a commitment to caring for each other.
First United knows this well. The church has been active in the Downtown Eastside for over 125 years. We provide care that meets the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of our community members, wherever they are at in their personal journeys. We are here 365 days/year, but know to take extra care during the holidays.
Meeting Community Needs
Our church caters to the immediate, pressing needs of our community members. We serve 2500 meals per week, provide shelter to 60 people every night, and offer free toiletries and harm reduction supplies to approximately 500 people each day. Members can avail themselves of emergency clothing, including rain gear. They can also indulge in the Footcare program, where we provide soothing tea tree oil foot soaks and fresh socks for people whose feet are ravaged by life outside in inappropriate footwear.
To further accommodate those without secure housing, we arrange 200 storage units for them to keep their precious belongings safe. Beyond this, we connect our community members with legal aid. Our legal advocates help people apply for social assistance, respond appropriately to tenancy disputes, and understand their rights.
Once the core physical needs of people are met, we can support their spiritual and emotional well-being. For seniors – who are the fastest growing population of first-time homeless people in Metro Vancouver – we offer social programs that create community connections and encourage healthy lifestyles. Men and women participate in discussion circles, and women are treated to a monthly Beauty Night that foster self-esteem through beauty treatments. Aboriginal community members – who make up just 2% of Vancouver’s total population but 30% of its homeless – benefit from regular talking circles, smudges and cultural sharing programs. Volunteers in our Listening Ministry are here to offer a compassionate heart to hear and honour what troubles our community. Our minister is also here, offering gentle spiritual guidance to all who seek it, regardless of their religion or beliefs.
We offer a number of programs that help people connect with those they love during the holidays. We serve as the mailing address for 600 people who do not have addresses, providing a reliable way for families to stay connected. We also provide free community voicemail, long distance phone calls and fax services. At Christmas, volunteers set up a station each morning where community members can write Christmas cards to their loved ones. For many people with loved ones living in the Downtown Eastside, this is the only message they receive each year, providing a thin yet vital thread of connection to hold onto.
There is Always Something to Celebrate
It is true that the holidays often bring shades of sadness for our community but they also offer opportunities for gratitude, reflection and hope. Our community is deeply bound by shared experience and common understanding – a found family. We celebrate our unity through special meals and small gifts. The chef puts on a delicious spread for the community – using hundreds of turkeys at Thanksgiving and an equal amount of ham at Christmas. Our gatherings are decorated by our members with the gift of music who delight us with their talents and set the mood at our special meals. Our family tradition also involves gift bags at Thanksgiving and stockings at Christmas for our shelter residents.
At First United, we celebrate small victories everyday – be it housing secured, an addiction tamed or a family reconnected. It is during the holidays that we take the time to reflect on the awesome resilience of our community. We honour the determination of our community to improve their lives and we humbly work alongside them each day, doing what we can to make hope possible.
To learn more about First United, please visit their charity profile page >>>