Calgary churches "a huge ally" in combating homelessness
By Frank Stirk | Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Man with shopping cart in Calgary, AB. Photo by C. Law. Wikimedia Commons.
CALGARY, ABRecent data showing a major downturn in Calgary's homeless population is due in large part to the "frontline response" to the problem by people of faith, says Tim Richter, president and CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation.
"The faith community has really been a huge ally in terms of volunteers, funding, and the organizations that they run getting onside and being just a very vocal and proud advocate of what we're doing," he says.
"There definitely is a spot for churches who want to contribute," adds Geoff Zakaib, chair of a homelessness working group that is part of the social justice group Kairos.
"There have been a number of events to raise awareness, and most denominations have organizations or committees that are actually on the ground, feet on the street, helping in a number of different ways."
A homeless count conducted in January found 3,190 people living on the street, down 11.4 per cent from 2008. It is the first decline in 20 yearsand effectively ends Calgary's dubious distinction of having the fastest growing rate of homelessness in Canada.
Richter credits the improvement to a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness adopted in 2008. It focuses on getting the homeless off the street and into affordable housing before addressing their addictions or other health issues. It is based on an American model that has proven very successful.
Lee Woolery, pastor of the Kairos-affiliated Lutheran Church of Our Saviour, recalls when the plan was first proposed, many churchgoers doubted it could make a difference.
"There's fewer and fewer skeptics now, as they see it actually does work and who's getting involved," he says. "It's businesses, churches, neighbourhoods and individuals. It's an incredible network that's being developed."
One member of McDougall United Church, for example, is researching the potential of secondary suites, such as a basement unit or rented room, to reduce homelessness.
"A lot of this effort is around researching and making people aware of the kind of difference legal secondary suites could make to the numbers of homeless, but also to the affordability of housing," says McDougall minister Dave Holmes.
For the past year, the main focus of the Kairos group of 10 denominations has been Acadia Place, a 58-unit apartment complex the homeless foundation purchased in 2009 to provide housing for the homeless. The churches have committed to help pay down the mortgage on the property and come alongside the residents.
The complex now has an onsite worker who has developed an array of programs, including children's activities, financial assistance and wellness awareness. She meets monthly with the neighbouring churches, including Church of Our Saviour, to help coordinate their involvement in Acadia Place.
"That additional level of support has made a huge difference to really building a community there," Zakaib says. "It's a bit of a breakthrough, providing not just rent that's affordable, but surrounding it with the services and support that they need to really get back in the mainstream."
Woolery says his congregation is now inspired to want to do more for their community. "People are asking, 'What else can we do to live out loving our neighbours as ourselves?' That's been exciting," he says. "And it's taken Acadia Place to put some flesh to all that."
Richter has his own challenge for the churches going forward.
"I'd love to challenge the faith community," he says, "to reach out to people that are fresh from homelessness and welcome them into their communities, and help them become and feel like normal members of a community like all the rest of us."