Volunteering at the Union Gospel Mission
Today I went to the Union Gospel Mission for the first time and spent two hours volunteering in the kitchen. Along with other volunteers, several cooks & kitchen helpers, we chopped, peeled, cut and otherwise prepared meat & vegetables for about 100 guests. After this, 5 of us created an assembly line and we added a bun, a piece of salmon (yum!), a scoop of rice and some sauce to every plate and together we ensured that 100 people had a healthy and delicious lunch.
This was a very heart-warming scenario, but what wasn’t so heart-warming was the sights from the bus along East Hastings. There were people living in tents, sitting on couches on the street, lying passively on the sidewalk, sitting in piles of garbage, some with crutches, wheelchairs, walkers or shopping carts. People were trying to sell products placed on towels, were shouting at others or staring aimlessly into the distance. When I mentioned this to a fellow volunteer, her comment was “People make choices.”
The idea is that you can’t force anyone to come to a shelter, to seek treatment, to give up drugs or alcohol or to follow the rules that charities set out. But my logic is that there are most likely only 3 reasons why someone is living on the street. The first one is mental illness. The second is drugs/alcohol addiction. The third is choice.
And if you are suffering from a mental illness and you don’t have parents, or close family members to ensure you get help, you are on your own. Maybe you are suffering from depression, from anxiety, from OCD – something that won’t allow you to make the steps to get a job – write a resume, attend an interview, show up ready to work etc. This, in my opinion, is not a choice. If you are mentally ill, you need help! Ditto with drug & alcohol addiction.
So, only those who are living on the street by choice, hopefully on a temporary basis, can really be seen as making a choice for themselves. They might be travellers/bloggers, in a crisis or just angry at something that make the street an attractive place to be. Maybe the housing you were given sucks – elevators that break down, cockroaches as roommates and dangerous hallways with dim lights.
Vancouver can do better. If I was voted into the Vancouver City Council, I would look into this and make some changes to policy. Everyone needs a voice – this would be good for business, good for tourism and good for the homeless, helpless and marginalized living on the streets in Vancouver.