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Street Level Canada

Pat Nixon and Dion

Prince George

Spent the day in Prince George. Gateway Ministries is a major player in ministry to the poor and homeless in this community. The leaders I talked to work for gateway ministries and they operate two very different services. I talked with Carol who runs the New Life Center and Dixie who is the Director of an amazing program called Samaritan Inn Recovery Home for Women.

New Life Center is located in the inner city. I met with Carol as some thirty patrons hung out playing games and socializing. The place was half full and I was assured they are usually packed in. 90% of those using these services are native and the majority from the Carrier Nation which is the same people as Cheryl Bear.

Carol was on her own, and has very few volunteers. The violence is high and somehow Carol keeps the peace most of the time. The community is dealing with a TB scare as well as bed bugs. This is a tough community.

Dixie directs the Samaritan Inn Recovery Home for women. I have visited this home many years ago and am glad to say they are a great group. About ten women at a time going through recovery. They take women from all over western Canada. Many great stories of success. They offer substance abuse counseling, 12 step program, Christian discipleship, group accountability and community involvement.

Dixie is exploring the possibility to do more work on the streets of Prince George and is open to ideas of what that could look like.

These godly women believed there would be great value for their programs as well as for Prince George as a whole to have a national relationship with similar groups and people. Prince George is far north and in the middle of nowhere. The nearest major cities would be Kamloops and Edmonton both a seven hour drive away. They have been invited to participate with other communities but transportation and time can make such adventures not so practical.

Distance is a common issue for communities in the west and north, we need to be thinking about this as we design the Street Level network that will best fit the needs of Carol and Dixie.

You can check out Gateway Ministries at

And you can drop Dixie a note of encouragement at tell her Pat Nixon said we should get to know each other. Tell her who you are and what you do and let her know you are blessed to know of the good work at Samaritan Inn. Anything like that would make her day.


Welcome to Langley

The front page of the newspaper declares the war is on and it’s going to be a nasty fight. The local turkey farmer is taking on the rural Mayor in the next election, but watch out I WAS GIVEN THE SCOOP the central Mayor Peter Fassbender is being tempted to take the whole territory by holding both seats in the next election. I estimate that the feathers will fly but Peter will come up on top. This is not Vancouver. Located an hour south in the beautiful Frasier Valley, 10 min from the US border, 15min from the ocean and 15min from the spectacular coastal mountains, I would have to say it is in the center of where I would love to be. Rolling fertile country side surrounded by fishing, boating, hiking and a bit of southern shopping. But what about “the call”? You know the walk with the poor call that God has had on my heart for the past 30 years. Well good news, I guess, the Mayor lets me know there’s lots of need and plenty of real social upheaval to keep me busy. I think I will keep this one on my list of perfectly great possibilities. But I will have to get it passed Lise. OH, maybe I’ll keep it on the back burner.

The city itself has a population of fewer than 30,000 with a surrounding Langley high density district municipality that pushes the whole district up to 130,000. Now you know what the turkey farmer is fighting for. Smaller then Vancouver, less poverty in your face but has more in common with the average Canadian city then the major centers we associate with street ministries. If StreetLevel is to be a truly national network for ministry to the poor and homeless we will need to serve the needs of many communities just like this one. This place has eight meal programs and most on the same night, complicated.

So I meet with Peter Fassbender the city Mayor, a Christian man who has a good hold on the dynamics of church city relationships. Pastor Leith White of the local Vineyard church joins us in our City Hall meeting. After I describe what StreetLevel was and is, then further explain my task and feel proud that my elevator speech is taking shape, I ask a simple question, “So what do you think?”. What I was looking for was, “that sounds interesting” or “WOW you’re ambitious!” What I got from Peter was “It won’t work, national networks usually end up being a waste of money; people put a lot of time into them then they just can’t be maintained; they rely on a lot of participation and people end up too busy to add value; organizations do not form good networks; why would I want to buy into something that has a high potential for failure?” This was going to be an amazing meeting, and it was.

Peter and Leith were amazing and I learned that the struggles these midsize communities face are complex just like other communities. Church and ministry turf wars, misguided approaches and philosophy of ministry, under skilled in organization development, feeling alone and ignored in a provincial and national plan, minimal dialog, Christians with an inward focus.

As Peter and Leith described the dynamics of Langley and the churches response to the poor I was processing that StreetLevel could go three ways. 1. Not leave the starting line, 2. Go half way and just maintain a resemblance of effectiveness, or 3. Overcome the odds and be right at the center of all that is so important to us, running the race to win. Can we build something that will be dynamic? Something people will desire to engage with? Just what would that be?

StreetLevel needs to be that central place where we can engage; not threatening but challenging, safe.

StreetLevel needs to be that community that gives us access to the things we seek, within grasp.

StreetLevel gives an opportunity to be at the table, the place where your words mean something.

StreetLevel needs to push us to be better, effective, challenged, and encouraged.

Tomorrow I drive to Kelowna and soon meet Laurence East for the first time face to face. He and I have our work cut out for us as we begin to engage on the most important tool StreetLevel will be defined by, our social media package. I think we are going to do great.

“StreetLevel the place you want to be.” I like that.


Welcome to Vancouver

The Vancouver East side, some call this area, mainly around East Hastings, the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I really don’t know if they are right as I have heard this same line in two other communities and in all honesty all three look like crap. One thing I can say about East Hastings is this place has to win the prize for the most non-profits anywhere award. I walked up and down its streets and side streets and thought if Street Level never employed me this is where I might even be able to land a job.

There seems to be no shortage of people to care, no end to the offers of service, no absence of a warm place for just about anyone to find. But even with all this generosity, anguish and desperation fill the faces of the hundreds of homeless and impoverished that lines the streets. Mayor Sam Sullivan said “When the world arrives in Vancouver in 2010, what kind of city will they find?” This question was meant to inspire the many to find answers to the poverty that overwhelmed the east Side. Well I can’t tell you if there was a reduction in numbers of poor flooding the streets, but I can say if they managed to dam the flow, the dam cracked and burst with no mercy.

And in the middle of it all God’s people live and breathe and walk and talk. I took some of Craig Greenfield’s time, this is the guy who heads up Servants Community Vancouver, and he offered it with grace. I was late, as I was dropped off at 450 West Hastings and not East Hastings, sometimes I just don’t pay attention. The good part was I had to walk nine blocks through the heart of Canada’s most notorious poorest neighbourhood just before I would meet with an amazing guy who calls this his home. Craig did not know this but I mumbled each and every step of this trek. I felt a bit hard done by as my arthritis was acting up, every step came with begrudged pain, what an inconvenienced pushing through mobs of people, poor people on the side walk.

This pain was good, why? After meeting Craig I was reminded that there are two types of people that walk with the poor. People like me who walk through the community and people like Craig who walk in it. My situation seemed to represent the majority of good people who get involved in the ministry to the poor. I was on a mission, needed and necessary, not without effort and with good intention, but at the end of the day I would only move through like a stranger. But for Craig and his few fellow companions including his wife Nay and children, this is home. Before Vancouver they lived in the Cambodia slums but since 2006 they have been pioneering a new Servants community in the Downtown East side of Vancouver

Craig says in a Canadian Christianity article entitled, Making a home in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood “We found after living in the slums in Asia for six years that our church friends romanticized the poor in exotic, faraway places, while demonizing the poor on their own doorstep. So there was something prophetic and provocative about coming and serving the poor right here.”

Servants Vancouver can be found on Facebook and on their wall you will find this description. Servants Vancouver is an intentional Christian community, based in the Downtown East side, made up of singles, marrieds and children. We are a community called to practice radical hospitality amongst those who are marginalized in our society.

Our approach is to simply offer a space in our home and daily lives to those living on the street, struggling with mental illness or drug addiction, where they can experience Christian community, love and healing in our midst.

Also check out This is an event Street Level will be supporting and in the list of speakers you will find some of our own among the called.

At the end of my appointment I walked home, a hotel down on English Bay. At the end of the day hundreds of servants of Christ who moved into this community at the start of their work day will also go home. At the end of the day a few will stay determined to walk and live in this community. My hat comes off to them not because they are more right and I do not even think they are more committed than those running the major missions. What I do think though is they are undeniably servants of a very compassionate and caring Savior. The example displayed through this very obedient and all-encompassing approach to servant hood is Jesus through and through.

Welcome to Victoria

Twenty two years ago Lise and I lived in this city of newlyweds and nearly dead. We loved it and just did not want to leave but God wanted me back in Calgary. What has changed in twenty two years? Not much. With half the rain that Vancouver gets and a climate that requires a light jacket eleven months of the year, this is the perfect place to be homeless. Mental illness remains a highly visible reality. The Victoria Mustard Seed Food Bank is overwhelmed with need, at least ten times the size it was when we lived here.

Lise and I attended the Victoria Mustard Seed Street Church Sunday service and were warmly welcomed. Reverend Tom Oshira introduced me and gave me a chance to let the people know what I am up to. I encouraged the congregation by letting them know how grateful Canadian ministries of compassion were that they shared their concept of Church with the nation.

Many do not know this, but a few of us old timers can never forget. The Victoria Mustard Seed Street Church was the flag ship of Street Church. I am talking about a church made up of people primarily from the street, in poverty, disenfranchised from society. Gipp Forester was the founder of the group and his ways were clearly unconventional. Gipp gave us a message that clearly said “God is not a respecter of persons”. This was evident as hundreds of people easily discarded by the conventional church were given opportunity to be active members of Christ’s body. I was one of those people he took under his wing and gave a chance to be what God gifted me to be.

Some things should not change! As our organizations grow and we become more subject to the scrutiny of the conventional world around us, do we substitute the open acceptance and empowering nature of Christ’s ministry? Are we striving to be known as great example of business excellence? Can you hear the words of Jesus on that day ‘well done my good and faithful MBA.” I am not saying good business is not important but I will say mercy and acceptance is far more important than good business.

Being in Victoria reminds me that there is always room for the unconventional in Christ’s ministry. There is always room for the poor, the sick, the broken and the hungry. And not simply on the fringe of His church, but in the center of it. Not just recipients but active brothers and sisters. Not merely diseased and disfigured by a shattered world but healers and bringers of hope.

Christ is in the place of despair, we do not bring him there, He allows us to join him there and become one with Him there. I hope StreetLevel takes up the flag for the unconventional. I think we have a responsibility to remind people that God is not a respecter of persons. There are some messages that just can’t change.

Welcome to Kamloops.

The crossroads of every highway you can imagine. Gateway to the north, south, east and west. I know this city from the wrong side of the tracks.

You may say this was my last known residence passed out in some pile of long grass before I was exiled to Alberta.

That is old news and today I received a new perspective, fresh and exciting, filled with hope and faith. The New Life Mission has a new Executive Director and his name is Kelly Row. The mission has been around for some time and it has had its ups and downs. There has been no shortage of need from the many homeless and poor people who call Kamloops home. The Missions main programs are full, staff have more than enough challenges. What’s new is a fresh spirit that is let loose when a young and vibrant leader has taken the helm. Kelly loves Christ and His word and he is clearly in his calling. There is those that think he is idealistic and others can be discouraging, as one man said to Kelly “In a few years you’ll come back to reality” Not if Kelly has anything to do about it! Kelly is confident God can move mountains and he is preparing for the mountain to move.

Kelly recognized that the Mission is not only a place to walk with the poor but also a platform to lead the church and the city. When Kelly speaks people listen and he is not scared to say the tough stuff.

So we talked about StreetLevel and I asked him what he needed. Kelly needs a relationship with those who went before him. He knows this is all new to him and his board wisely told him to find good advisers. He wants to be a great leader and an affective minister. He wants his staff cared for and learning from fresh ideas, inspired through good biblical teaching, healthy and avoiding some of those nasty pitfalls.

After speaking with Kelly I saw StreetLevel’s mentor-ship role. We can be those people that point out the known pitfalls, be there for the tough questions, be a megaphone for Kelly’s enthusiasm so more than just Kamloops will benefit from his gift. And more than that we can believe mountains can move and help Kelly get ready for the mountain to move.

Kelly needs us and we need him.

Email him if you like tell him he is in your prayers.


Welcome to Kelowna

During this trip I will be in Kelowna twice. Today with Randy Benson ED of Kelowna Gospel Mission and next Saturday with our good buddy Laurence East from Metro Community and beloved member of the Round table on Homelessness and Poverty.

Kelowna is the heart of the Okanagan , the largest community in the area at 121,000. Kelowna has a street population that is visible and active and fortunately for Kelowna, they have the Kelowna Gospel Mission. Many years ago I worked with Randy on a fund raising event and at the time the community leaders were pressuring the Mission to move not wanting those people any were near the down town core. NIMBY was strong and it was organized. At one point they and I thought they would need to move but they remain right down on Leon Street, a stone’s throw from the down town park. And I believe the community leaders have now held up this group with Mayor, Chief of police and other political sorts on board. Randy seems to be the guy who can get to them to the table to help encourage a healthy response for the care of our people.

The Mission is multi-faceted with men’s and women’s shelters, recovery programs, food and clothing, education and dental and the list goes on and on. You should look at their web site and click services to get an idea at the great job they do.

But the most encouraging part of our conversation for me came as Randy engaged on the need to develop StreetLevel. He saw the value and had all sorts of ideas. Randy has a lot to offer but he recognizes he and his staff have some needs that are not being met especially in this economic environment where you can’t afford to just send all your staff to some conference down south for their needed pep talks. Randy recognized he had some advantage being a member of the UGM with a large North American network of support but even that network falls short of supporting his staff.

Randy saw the value in a Canadian Christian association, something that ran west and east not south; He needs training and inspiration to come to his people not just another national conference; the concept of measurement of Christian compassion impact on community seemed to hold power; developing messaging into the Church that can be shared by all was very helpful; helping develop communication lines with local and national decision makers was talked about; providing a data bank of best practices, job opportunities, operation policy and a few good stories was a great idea; Sharing of fund development ideas such as their Stone Chef Soup competition, ; developing a national calendar of events; And building lasting relationships with like-minded people was clearly a benefit.

From time to time we hear of sightings of the OGOPOGO in these waters, some would say the serpent is real others say it is a fable. StreetLevel Canada has been spotted from time to time by many of us and today Randy became one more witness of Streetlevels need and reality.


I believe that yesterday was a really important day in the life of Street Level.

Today we embarked on our journey to Newfoundland in our quest to further our goals as Street Level Canada.

What is ‘Street Level Canada’ you might ask? Well to make a long story shorter, just go here and find our more.

Also, go here ( for our foundational document that articulates exacly what we believe and what we are trying to mobilize and encourage the church in Canada to participate in.

I’ve had the privilege and the responsibility to be the chairperson of Street Level Canada for the past couple of years and have tried to provide some leadership to this group of amazing leaders. Some of the members have been my heroes, mentors and teachers for my whole career. So while it’s been an honour to be asked by them to be the chairperson, it’s also been daunting (to say the least).

Last year we hit a major roadblock and lost some momentum along the way. It forced us to regroup. One of the things we concluded while we were rethinking our goals and vision was that we really couldn’t get very far with this thing without making a significant change. Each of us run our own ministries which takes up more time than we already have, so to try and get something else off the ground while ensuring that our own ministry responsibilities were being looked after was simply impossible.

During that time of being honest with ourselves, one of our founding members, Pat Nixon, finished up his role as Executive Director of the Mustard Seed in Calgary. He did that job for 27 years and made that mission one of the most influential street agencies in all of Canada. Pat is the recipient of many awards and accolades along the way including citizen of the year in Calgary on more than one occasion as well as becoming a member of the Governor General’s Order of Canada.

So our friend Pat was looking for what was next for him, and the members of Street Level Canada knew we couldn’t do this without an employee whose whole job was to further our vision. We believed this to be providential. So to make a long story short, we have hired Pat as our first ever Street Level employee. His title is ‘National Coordinator of Street Level Canada’.

His initial mandate is to travel this country to see who the like-minded players are. We are looking for folks who are doing social justice work as a response to their faith in God and their love for people and their passion to see a more equitable and just Canada for all people.

So when his time came to visit Newfoundland, as this is the province I grew up in and still love, and as Pat has never been here before and needed a translator:), I came along for the ride.

So we set out first thing tomorrow to rural NF. We will meet with and listen to the stories of about a dozen people from different backgrounds who are doing the good work amongst rural Newfoundlanders that are struggling with addiction, abuse, low standard housing, and dire poverty. Then we will spend the next day in St. John’s to do the same thing all over again in a more urban setting.

I believe my eyes are going to be made wide open regarding my home province after these next few days, and I’m writing this in case some of you want to come along for the ride.

Originally, when we decided to come to Newfoundland, we were going to spend our whole time in St. John’s; Newfoundlands major urban center. But once we got on the phone to try and connect to the players here, we quickly learned that there was a ton of work happening in rural settings around the issue of social justice and that the rural poverty issues ran deep and are extremely complex. So we changed our plans and decided to spend half of our time in rural Newfoundland and half of it in St. John’s.

After yesterday, we are convinced that the decision we made was a crucial one as we heard story after story of hope and despair all mixed together.

Pat and Lise picked me up from my sisters house early yesterday morning and we drove the hour or so it took to get to Carbonear. The ocean views along the way were wonderful and were nothing short of therapeutic for this small town Newfoundland boy.

We got there and immediately sat down with the leadership team of an evangelical United Church in a neighbouring community of 1200 people called Victoria. (The man said he lived in Victoria BC; Behind Carbonear:)

This little town has the ‘not so tourist’ friendly distinction of having the highest per capita rate of domestic abuse in all of Canada.

This leadership team spoke (often with tears in their eyes, which led to our own tears) of placing all of their emphasis on youth between the ages of 11 and 16. Most of these kids come from families with one or both parents who have addictions and live in poverty. They now have a group of 40 of these kids coming to their church, who have committed their lives to a life of loving God and loving neighbour.These kids don’t care about typical youth group types of fun and games. They want to get involved in a hands on way with responding to the needs of their community.

An awesome thing happened in that conversation that reminded us that what we are trying to do actually matters. Somehow it came up that Tim Huff and Greg Paul were members of our group, and the woman who runs the youth group nearly jumped out of her seat with excitement because she had read all of their books. This affirmed us in a very deep way (and hopefully will encourage Greg and Tim too)

We spoke to them of our hopes of building regional chapters of Street Level, and of how we want to resource regional gatherings/conferences of like-minded Christians. They immediately were on board and offered to set this thing up with full confidence of being able to find at least 100 like-minded rural Newfoundlanders in their region to come together and make that happen (especially when we promised we could get Tim and/or Greg to come and speak. (Forgive us guys for doing that before checking in first but we were pretty sure you’d embrace a chance to do that)

They also spoke of the rampant addiction issues running through rural Newfoundland that everyone knows about but few talk about. Their issues run from working adults who get addicted to prescription pain meds, namely oxycontin/oxycodone, to kids in the schools who can get easy access to every street drug that can be found anywhere. They spoke of drug trade houses that everyone knows about but no one speaks of because in rural Newfoundland, ‘everybody knows everybody’ and are worried about what might get said about them if they talk about this.

They also spoke of how poisonous the government sponsored slot machines are that appear in most of the local pubs, and how destructive these machines are in so many lives of rural Newfoundlanders who are addicted to them and have spent every dime they own on them.

One of the members of their team, who unfortunately couldn’t make it to our meeting, is a former addict himself. He and his wife (also a former addict) have had their lives changed by the power of God (who is far bigger than oxtcontin), and are now about the business of responding to the issue of addiction in their area. He was part of an advocacy group to try and get funding to build a drop-in center in Carbonear for people who need community, and last month the local government rep came to the community with a cheque in hand to fund the development of such a drop-in.

They have learned that the church isn’t at all about paying the pastor to do all of the work of the church and then sitting back and feeling as though they have done their part by dropping their collection in the plate (They lamented that many churches do still think that way) They have fully embraced that church is about all members participating in the life of that church and responding in love to the people all around them; regardless of what they believe or how much money they have or what they’ve done.

We spent the bulk of the morning together and enjoyed each others company. Though we dwell in very different environments, there was a kinship there that binds us together. This is what Street Level Canada is all about.

I had hoped to write here about the other meeting we had, but I’ve obviously gone on too long already so will come back later with another note about that one as it was also too profound to skim over.

Our day in rural NF (see my previous post if you’d like to read about our morning meeting) continued on with an opportunity for us to take in a short visit with my sister Joy and her colleagues. Joy has given her whole life to bringing hope to people who have been left behind and forgotten, and has successfully run missions all across this country. Now she is involved in a team of people who are helping to provide micro-loans to rural Newfoundlanders who have small business ideas but would never have the means to get them off the ground. Joy assesses the ideas, helps create the business plans, coaches the people with the ideas, and decides which ideas seem sustainable. They have had great success and many rural NF businesses are now up and running due to her work. She makes me really proud to be her brother. (We later got to go back to her home where we had a lobster dinner. Oh so very good!)

Then we drove to an Anglican Church in a small community called Clark’s Beach. The church is called ‘The Church of the Resurrection’, which is the name of the Anglican Church that I go to in Toronto. So I immediately felt like I was home. We walked into their community lunch program to the wonderful smell of curry; an admittedly pleasant surprise considering the fact that our family’s entire spice rack growing up consisted of salt and pepper. (But what wonders my mother could do with those! So I’m not complaining)

The building was newly renovated, and it was instantly obvious that this church took seriously their calling to radical, dignified hospitality. We were greeted by their priest, who we later found out is also the arch deacon for the region, Gerald Westcott. With his distinct Newfoundland charm and humour, he instantly made us feel welcomed. He told us of their work in the community which includes this ‘pay what you can’ lunch program that runs 6 days per week. Then people started showing up to meet with us. Lots of people. By the time we sat down for lunch, there were nine of us.

It was clear that the leader of this group was a woman named Sheila Handrigan. She chairs pretty much every local committee around housing and homelessness, and is real ‘take charge go-getter’ woman of deep conviction and compassion. I had cold called her from Toronto when setting up these appointments, and she just said ‘leave it to me’ and set the whole thing up. It was a gift just to have had the privilege of meeting her.

We then began talking together and hearing the stories. We heard about complex mental health issues and addictions. We discussed the term ‘homelessness’ and all agreed that it is not the same meaning as ‘houselessness’. However, when we asked if there were actually people who were houseless in their region, we heard a resounding yes. We heard stories of people living ‘under the wharf’. We heard about people who live in tents all year round in NF of all places. The winters here are not nice so living in a tent can’t be easy.

Then we heard bout people living in homes who couldn’t afford to pay their power bills so have had their electricity cut. We heard about an abused woman whose husband had left who then ran out of money and this past January had her electricity cut and it has been off ever since.

We heard about the growing issue of slum landlords in rural Newfoundland! People are paying rent in places without heat or plumbing and there are no rent controls in place to prevent these landlords from jacking up the rent as much as they choose to.

We then started to hear a lament about the church’s participation or lack thereof in these issues. We heard laments of manses and church properties that are sitting vacant all across the region when so many people need a decent place to live. We heard about their community plan, a thick document that was written by another one of the amazing women that were at the table with us. When we asked about how many churches were involved in the community plan partnerships, the answer was a depressing, zero. Not one church came to the table.

Thankfully, 2 Catholic nuns were at the table that identified as ‘presentation sisters’. The 2 of them, when you combine their years of service, have been doing social justice work in NF for just short of a century. Yes. I said century! They spoke of giving up monasteries that were no longer being used by priests and nuns so that they could be retrofitted to become affordable housing and/or shelters. They run a drop-in center in St. John’s called ‘the Gathering Place’. These were wonderful women whose very lives demonstrate all that we want to be about at Street Level Canada.

This conversation together lasted 3 hours. At the end, we heard again that conversations in rural NF are crucial in that they are about preventing people from slipping through the cracks of small towns and ending up in urban centers all across Canada. I recounted my own experience of growing up in a small town in NF with a half dozen churches in it, all known for their differences as opposed to what they have in common, and how so many of the people who grew up in that same town have slipped through the cracks and ended up living in the shelter that I run in downtown Toronto. I spoke of my strong conviction that the solution to homelessness is simply to wake up the sleeping giant called the church so that it takes seriously the 2 greatest commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. I spoke of my belief that if the church took those 2 simple things seriously, then people would stop being lost to the streets.

At the conclusion of our meeting, Sheila Handrigan threw out an idea they had to buy an old motel just down the street from where we were, that was being sold for no more than $40,000. (She knows how to time these things for sure) They could then get government money to retrofit it to house 20 people. (The government won’t buy it but would fund the retrofit) Pat and I looked at each other afterwards and said “wouldn’t it be great if ‘Street Level Canada’ could connect them to a funder?” $40k is really not too much to dream about.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if when Street Level Canada does its first regional gathering in rural Newfoundland, that we could present a cheque for $40k to the faithful people here in order to further their cause for justice?

Wouldn’t that be great?
Our last day in NF turned out to be a completely different kind of a day. While we were in rural NF we heard local stories about local people that everyone around the table knew personally. But in St. John’s we met people who were doing province wide advocacy work and so we began to hear different kinds of stories about systemic poverty issues that run all across the province.

In the morning we drove to the Salvation Army Wiseman Center; a 30-bed shelter for men who are experiencing homelessness. Pat and I, perhaps providentially, took a wrong turn and ended up on a highway that took us quite a ways further than we needed to go. So once we got to en exit, we decided to just take the streets back instead of getting back on the highway. We got to the street we were looking for, Water Street, and headed back towards the shelter. We realized that we must be in one of the richest parts of St. John’s because we found ourselves driving by big, expensive, gated homes. Then, like in every other major city I’ve veer been in, we knew we had crossed the invisible line between the rich and poor part of town and before we knew it we were at the shelter. And a beautiful shelter it is. They had taken an old house and retrofitted it to be this shelter for men that had individual rooms in it that felt a lot like a home.

We were there to meet 2 members of the “Religious Social Action Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador”; a multi-faith group of people who have committed their lives to advocating for equality for all people. One of those 2 members that we met was a Salvation Army officer. The chairperson of this group was a passionate and articulate man who, after the opening formalities, launched into his convictions about poverty. Here are some of his ‘notable quotables’;

“We believe that the government makes people poor, and that people who have compassion just come in to try and make their poverty less painful”

“For really wealthy people in this province, life is good. For the poor, things are getting worse. Housing is getting less accessible. Food banks are on the rise. Social issues are growing”

“We believe while it’s a big task to try and respond to the poor, it’s an even bigger task to educate the people.”

“The focus on poverty has often been on the poor. But I would say that we need to take a step back and look at society as a whole.”

We had some great back and forth conversation about these statements, and while these folks obviously viewed us with some caution and skepticism, and while we aren’t as primarily focused on government advocacy as they are, we acknowledged when all was said and done that there were partnership possibilities here. As Street Level Canada’s primary focus is on mobilizing the church to get more involved, and as they say they have access to pulpits all across NF, we see this relationship as being mutually beneficial to our agendas without question.

Our next meeting was one that I was very much looking forward to due to the fact that we were meeting at a social purpose enterprise restaurant. My latest passion in street work has been in the area of finding ways to help people find meaningful work for meaningful pay. So at Gateway we have created 2 social enterprises thus far; an industrial laundry facility that does all of the laundry for the SA shelters in Toronto, and a garbage disposal program. Both exist entirely for the purpose of helping people who live in shelters re-discover their self-worth and possibly reintegrate into the work force.

So we headed to The Hungry Heart Café, a quaint little restaurant in the middle of St. John’s within view of Signal Hill. We walked in and the host, a man who so clearly loved his job and we later heard was a program participant who was being trained in the service industry, asked us if we had a reservation. A reservation? During our meal, an upscale kind of a lunch that you’d get in any trendy neighbourhood restaurant anywhere, we realized that the place packed out and that we really would not have been seated had we not had a reservation. It was so very cool and encouraging to see this kind of thing happening right in my home province. I had no idea it existed here.

Our meeting was with Bruce Pearce, a community development worker and chair of the St. John’s community advisory committee on homelessness. He is known all across Canada for his work in this area, and was immediately welcoming and showed a sincere interest in what we were doing. He instantly spoke of the fact that NF is now a ‘have’ province. But he said that “…as NF grows in wealth, the lines between the rich and the poor are becoming more demarcated.” He told a story of poverty in a small community Labrador, where mining is causing a huge boom in the local economy. If people make less than that they qualify for assistance in their housing costs. But if they make even slightly more than that they do not qualify for housing subsidies. This leads to that group of people being unable to afford the skyrocketing cost of housing, and becomes a dis-incentive for people to work. People choose to not work and go on social assistance so that they can get a decent place to live.

He then spoke of the rental vacancy rate in Newfoundland in 1998 being 15%. Today the vacancy rate is 1%, with the issue even getting worse due to low income housing stock being bought up by developers and flipped to be sold to an upmarket consumer. He reinforced that the richer Newfoundland gets, the bigger the gap becomes between the rich and the poor and the more difficult it gets for average people just to get by.

He heard our conviction that we believe that the church has a lot of untapped potential in this issue, and showed a deep willingness to partner with us as we pursue our goals of waking up the sleeping giant in hopes of seeing justice and equality for all Canadians.

So, in two days of meetings in NF we were affirmed in our vision and saw first-hand that these issues truly are national in scope. We know that people from all across Canada have a deep desire to participate in the vision of Street Level Canada.

We can do more together than we can do apart!

Until Justice and Peace unite,