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Shoring up the last line of defence

Richmond's non-profits are just about coping, despite creaking under the weight of increased demand from unlikely sources

Richmond has the second highest poverty rate in the country, and one in nine people lucky enough to hold down a job in the city pocket less than $20,000 a year.

More and more sad stories are told of children going to school hungry as low-income families struggle to put food on the table.

Throw in government funding cuts, precarious employment and the spiraling cost of living and you have serious downward pressure putting the squeeze on the last line of defence — the charity.

To keep up with the demand and stay ahead of the “competition” — new non-profits pop up every year as new community needs are identified — charities are having to be creative to simply survive.

The symptoms of a community in need — pervasive fundraising at your supermarket checkout and soaring demand for help — surface at unfortunate venues such as the food bank, where an astonishing 1,500 Richmondites swallow their pride every week so they can feed themselves and their families.

Hundreds more, many of them families and working poor, turn out to get their only fresh meat of the week at a growing number of church volunteer-run community meals.

Decades ago, a number of the charities now feeling the pinch of modern day pressures, were seen as temporary solutions to fleeting problems — a Band-Aid for the community’s social wounds.

However, they’ve now become a permanent thread in the fabric of the city, forever expected to sew up the holes worn out by years of government neglect.

“As charities step in, instead of government saying ‘we better do something,’ they just let us get on with it,” said Richmond Food Bank’s executive director, Margaret Hewlett.

“(The government) even used to deny sending families to food banks. Now, their written policy is to actually tell people to go out and use other resources in the community first.”

The city, Hewlett believes, would like to respond, but don’t, out of fear of being downloaded onto on a permanent basis.

Wayne Duzita, community chair of the Richmond Christmas Fund, remembers getting involved as managing director of the PNE’s food bank back in 1984.

“Was it a Band-Aid solution back then? Yes, and I’d agree, unfortunately, food banks have become part of everyday life,” said Duzita.

“I’m not sure it will ever go away. Who knows? Unless we totally solve the poverty problem, then it’s always going to be there.

“What I do know is that there’s a need for help in the community and I have the capability to do something about it.”

Hewlett said both provincial and federal governments have, for too long, taken charities for granted and allowed them to paper over the

cracks of their social policies.

“Not everybody can get a job, hold that job and look after themselves or their family,” added Hewlett, who said demand has soared at the food bank from 130 households a week in the early ’90s to 650 nowadays.

“And as much as we respect people’s privacy when they come here, we started asking why they were coming, just to try and understand more of what was happening out there.

“They were temporarily employed hotel workers, retail workers, people on really low wages. It wasn’t just people who had lost their jobs.”

“The most concerning ones are the seniors, whose pensions are not enough to cope with things such as health care costs.


OVER at the Gilmore Park United Church — where volunteers have been running next week’s charitable Dream Auction for 20 years — spare seats at its weekly community meal are a rare sight.

“Seven years ago, about 60-70 people would show up, usually seniors,” said retired church administrator Gail Nichols, who explained about $8,000 of the $30,000 raised at the Dream Auction goes towards the $20,000 it takes annually to lay on the weekly community meals.

“Now we have between 140 and 160; many young families, many are new immigrants from Asia and many are the working poor.”

Gilmore’s community meal is now maxed out, and it’s the same over at Bethel (a partner church to Gilmore, which also runs a weekly meal).

“People often ask me, ‘Who in Richmond has to go for that meal?’” added the Dream Auction’s Jan Brady, a part-time nurse/office manager.

“They would be surprised what they see.”

Such people are Richmond’s inconspicuous poor, hiding in plain sight, only becoming visible when appearing at aforementioned food banks and community meals.

 “Just because we don’t have pockets of people physically living on the street doesn’t mean the poverty isn’t there.”


ANOTHER stresser for local charities is getting enough volunteers to share the load.

When Duzita took over as chair of Volunteer Richmond Information Services’ Richmond Christmas Fund, he quickly realized there were a lot of charities out there, but many had the same volunteers.

“There was about five people here trying to do everything,” said Duzita.

“I wanted to create something very different and, instead, created an army of volunteers. I thought it was better to ask a very little from a lot of people.”

The Christmas Fund, which helps out needy families over the festive season with grocery vouchers and gifts for the kids, now has about 54 individuals or companies helping out.

And as for getting the public’s attention, the span of which decreases every year, Duzita and his team have to continue to tap into their creative juices.

“The Canada Line parking lot event, for example, was a great success last year,” he said. “And we have to continue to come up with stuff like that each year.”

Inventing new ways to lure people back to the Dream Auction year after year has become second nature to Nichols and Brady, who were both busy this week cataloguing items for the silent auction.

“It started 20 years ago in the old building as a fun event in the church’s basement,” said Nichols.

“It’s now in its 12th year in a new building and has grown every year. Most years we sell out our 300 tickets and have raised more than $340,000 in those years.

“But this year, we’ve sold just over 200. We’re hoping to push the last 100 in the final week.”

The Dream Auction has leaned heavily on the local business community since its inception. Which is just as well, considering the frosty response from the bigger corporations, no doubt inundated by similar requests from charitable organizations.

“We have great support from the local business community when it comes to auction items and other donations and we have tried to attract support from the bigger corporations,” said Brady.

“But we got next to nothing, sometimes we don’t even get a reply.”


FOR the Richmond Food Bank’s Hewlett, one of the biggest frustrations is knowing how much more could be done.

“We have a microcosm of need coming in here.”

“There’s people new to the community; people shocked by the price of housing; people in precarious employment; struggling seniors and people with addictions.

“We’re often the first port of call for people in need. And that’s when we discover that people need more than a tin of soup,” she said.

“We try to connect them to other resources and agencies or provide it ourselves. But we don’t have adequate facilities for what we’re doing or trying to achieve.

“There are other services we’d like to offer people without having to send them to another building, because that’s when we tend to lose them.”