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The supply line: Volunteers 'stretched to the limit' helping Richmond's homeless

Part two of the Richmond News' feature on homelessness in the city highlights desperate calls for help
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The Salvation Army’s emergency truck hands out hundreds of free hot meals every week to people living on the streets in Richmond. The charity is one of many in the city’s faith community helping to keep people alive. The Richmond News told last week how an after-hours outreach worker feels the homeless situation in Richmond is about to “blow up in our faces.”

“Getting the food is not the problem. But we are stretched to the limit.”

De Whalen can’t praise Richmond’s small battalion of volunteer-led faith communities and the Salvation Army enough.

After all, they are, with their patchwork of community meals – one day here, one day there – quite literally keeping the city’s street homeless population alive.

Allied with one or two local businesses, hundreds of hot meals pumped out weekly by the churches and charity and delivered direct by an after-hours outreach worker to people living rough on the street.

However, Whalen, as a member of the Richmond Food Aid Delivery Coalition which coordinates the vital aforementioned service, said the threads are starting to show.

“These faith communities are having smaller and smaller congregations, but they keep putting out all these meals,” explained Whalen.

“We’re all just stretched to the absolute limit. Food is not the problem. It’s producing it, making proper meals out of it, with volunteers.

“We simply cannot rely on these volunteers forever. It’s too much to keep on falling back on them, asking them to plug the gaps.

“Luckily, we have the Salvation Army funding one position, Hugh Freiberg, as an after-hours outreach worker.

“But he needs help. The guy needs a day off.”

Pressure getting too heavy for volunteers

Much like after-hours outreach worker Hugh Freiberg — who told the Richmond News last week of the dire homeless situation on our city’s streets — Whalen has been at the front of Richmond’s poverty line for many years, 15 to be exact.

But the pressure on the faith-fed supply line was so heavy a few months ago that, while collaborating with the Union Gospel Mission, Whalen asked if they could dig deeper into the situation and create a report to highlight the gravity of it all.

“We asked them to do a scan to see what was out there, where all the help was coming from,” Whalen told the News.

“The (Union Gospel Mission) know how stretched we are. That’s why they were willing to do an environmental scan of what’s out there and where the gaps are.”

That report, titled “One to Ten Minutes to Connect — 2022 Inventory of Outreach Services in Richmond,” was presented last week to Richmond city council by Whalen.

The report and her presentation were subsequently referred to city staff for analysis.

“We need people to realize the seriousness of the situation. We need at least two after-hours street outreach workers,” she added.

“Outreach is not Monday to Friday. The report pointed out that, if you really want something done, you have to measure it. So that’s what we started doing with our stats.

“We need to have a formal mechanism to monitor the need going up.

“It’s more dangerous out there than it has ever been. There’s nowhere to refer (the people living on the street) to.”

Whalen said the report “gives us an idea of how to coordinate what we do have and shines a big light on what we need.

“We needed something in black and white and now we have it. It’s there for all to see.”

Kudos to Richmond’s faith communities

The report acknowledged the many voluntary arms of Richmond’s faith community, which supplies more than 16,000 meals a year for Freiberg to deliver in the dead of night to the city’s “street entrenched” population.

They included the Salvation Army and its food truck, Church on Five, Gilmore Park United Church, the Kehila Society of Richmond, St Alban’s Anglican, St Joseph the Worker Catholic Parish, Richmond Presbyterian, and Union Gospel Mission.

As well as the faith community, Freiberg said he relies on the generosity of some local businesses, including Riverside Banquet Halls.

However, the report said it was “also evident that non-profits and faith communities cannot sustain this work on their own.

“Too much pressure is falling on individuals who have taken on the work as a volunteer or in retirement. There is urgent need for sustainable funding, collaborative strategic planning, coordinated implementation, and trained mental health workers to respond to needs beyond what a volunteer or outreach worker can manage.

“Furthermore, a significant emphasis should be on street-outreach work, where vulnerable people are currently found.

“When we support people who are struggling to get back into stable situations, we lessen both human distress and the cost to our healthcare system.”

According to the report, Freiberg — who told the News last week that the homeless situation is about to “blow up” — connects every day with around 70 people living rough in Richmond’s back alleys and under bridges.

The report estimates there are about 200 people in Richmond who live out of their vehicles and 1,000 more are housed “but at imminent risk of losing everything.”

It also referenced the latest “Homeless Count” in Richmond in March 2020 showing a 21 per cent increase over 2017, “tying for second highest increase in the Metro Vancouver region.”

“Many of these people would not eat without the daily meal deliveries they receive,” read the report, noting that many of them have addictions and/or complex mental health challenges.

“As one outreach provider put it, ‘I’m a social worker, caseworker and pizza delivery guy.”

Gathering storm, a fall-out from covid

The report recommended there be more outreach workers to be available throughout all hours of the day, to take the pressure off the likes of Freiberg and the many volunteer-led arms in the community.

Meanwhile, Whalen said the situation is as “desperate as it has ever been.”

“Many years ago Hugh (Freiberg) came to ask for a few meals a week, 20 or so, to take to these entrenched street people.

“It grew from 20 meals a week from St Albans, to over 50 meals a night. There are times when Hugh reports back that he ran out of meals and had to buy food gift cards.

“I think it has been a gathering storm; fall-out from COVID, people losing their jobs and falling through the cracks; they can’t pay their rent and so on.

“There’s also this meth and overdose epidemic…people get very desperate.”

If you want to help, go to https://salvationarmyrichmond.org/

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