I was born in 1961, in Prince Rupert, on the northern coast of BC. My parents died when I was very young, so I went to live with my grandparents in Gingolx (Kingcolith), BC. Growing up in my Nisga'a First Nations community, I was surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles, and I had a very close relationship with my grandmother. She was a strong Nisga'a woman, and when I was with her, I knew I was loved, I was safe, and I belonged.
Tragically, that sense of safety and belonging was ripped away from me when I was only 8 years old. There was a knock on my grandparent's door at 6am. Indian Agents had come to take me away to residential school and threatened to put my grandparents in jail if they resisted. I was put on a plane to a residential school in Alert Bay, BC, where I would face horrific trauma and abuse that no child should ever experience.
At residential school, I was forced to abandon my Nisga'a language. When I learned English I learned pain. I was physically abused for speaking Nisga'a, but the deeper pain came as I started to understand the words they were yelling at me. They told me I was worthless. I was the wrong colour. I was destined to be a drunk. I was a waste of space. Those words cut me deep and stuck with me for most of my life. After a year, I was moved to another school in Port Alberni, where the abuse continued.
Altogether, I was kept away from my family for 2 years. During this time, I was sexually abused by two men, and suffered daily physical and verbal abuse. I was just a child. Nothing could have prepared me for these traumas. In the darkest moments, I would imagine myself at home with my grandmother, in my safe haven. This kept me away from the pain, the sexual abuse, and the suffering I went through. The shock of these experiences caused my mind to block out a lot of those memories throughout my teenage years.
When I was nearly 20, I started having flashbacks from the severe traumas at residential school. It was like looking into a dream, a nightmare. I was filled with shame, and did not tell anyone what was happening. Unable to cope with the pain, I started to drink. The next few years passed in a blur. I moved back to Gingolx to live with my Grandmother. It was such a relief to be with her again. I felt the sense of belonging which I had been missing so desperately. I cut back on my drinking. I went to work and gave her half of every paycheque. It was a very special time.
I was filled with shame, and did not tell anyone what was happening. Unable to cope with the pain, I started to drink."
After several good years together, my grandmother got ill and passed away. At that point, things went downhill again. I got into a bad relationship. We drank and did drugs together. After 7 years, my girlfriend left me and I started to unravel. Soon my drug use and drinking was out of control. I took pills, I smoked crack, I did powder. I started getting involved in serious criminal activities. As I went through the motions, I couldn't help but feel like the messages I'd heard as a child were true. I was destined to be a drunk. I was a waste of space. I didn't belong.
At 43 years old, my life had become unlivable. I knew I needed change, so I went to Miracle Valley, a treatment centre outside of the city of Mission. My sobriety lasted for 3 months, but in the end, the pain of my childhood was too much to bear and I relapsed. Drunk and confused, I ended up at UGM in Mission, because someone told me that they offered free meals. Week after week, I went there for the food, and slowly, I started to get to know the staff. I was surprised that they didn't seem to judge me. Their care felt genuine.
Soon, I was going to UGM almost every day. I started to make new friends, and I joined their choir. For about two years, this was my community, and that sense of community gave me hope. I attempted to quit drinking twice in that time. The UGM staff would take me to detox in Chilliwack. The second time I was in detox, a staff member helped me apply for UGM's Alcohol & Drug Recovery program in Vancouver.
I went there for the food, and slowly, I started to get to know the staff. Their care felt genuine."
Going into recovery was a scary time for me. I was afraid because I didn't know what I was going to do with all the empty space I had filled with alcohol and drugs. I was also afraid because of the religious aspect. My childhood abusers had hurt me in the Lord's name. I stuck it out, telling myself that I needed to get better, and I wanted to change my life.
Recovery was challenging and painful, but facing my past with the support of UGM staff and my peers allowed me to release the hatred and darkness I had been carrying around. That was a major turning point for me.
After recovery, I continued to receive support and counselling through UGM's Aftercare program. When I finished the Aftercare program, I knew I needed to find an abstinence-based residence, so I applied to live in one of UGM's apartments. Living here has been different than living anywhere else. It's safe and clean, and I don't have to worry about people partying in the building. The biggest thing, though, is that I am surrounded by friends who support me in my sobriety every day.
Everything in my life today is different because I'm sober. I've learned how to forgive and how to love. My childhood held some of the darkest points in my life, and the fact that I am here, able to share my story, is a miracle. Without the love and care I received at UGM, I believe my addiction would have killed me. Being part of a community gave me hope, and showed me that I could rise above the abuse and the lies I was told as a child.
Without the love and care I received at UGM, I believe my addiction would have killed me. Being part of a community gave me hope."
Today, I continue to patch together forgotten parts of my painful past so that I may heal, and I hold memories of my grandmother close to my heart – remembering her strength and love. I do my best to represent my culture with pride and dignity, and next year, I will be attending a very special ceremony where I hope to receive a Nisga'a name. To receive a new name, which is based on who I am and who I have become, would be a great honour and a sign that I have been fully reunited with my Nisga'a community. On that day, I am going to say my new name over and over.
Every month for the last 10 years, Sue Anne has been using her talent as a hair stylist to bless women at Lydia Home, UGM’s live-in Alcohol & Drug Recovery program for women. She has touched the hearts of hundreds of women in recovery. When asked what this experience has meant to her, here’s what Sue Anne had to say:
"I still remember the first haircut I gave here. It was a petite woman with a lot of hair. I gave her a pixie cut to bring out her features. She went into the bathroom and she screamed. At first I was worried, but she came out and said she loved it. At that moment, I knew this was the right thing for me to do. The women I’ve met at Lydia Home have gone through intense challenges and trauma. To help someone feel renewed and beautiful brings me such joy."
"I delight in the knowledge that I can use my gifts to offer hope and encouragement. The women I’ve worked with say I’ve blessed them, but they have truly blessed me. Just seeing their faces when they go look at themselves in the mirror and feel their hair - That’s really my reward, to see how happy they are. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know a lot of incredible women and have witnessed some huge life transformations through recovery at Lydia Home. What a tremendous honor."
Mary's childhood was anything but normal. She was born into a family with 13 children, but her mother struggled with mental health issues, and at 1 year old she was placed with her uncle's family. Mary's relationship with her surrogate father was very close, but not always easy, as he was a war vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
When she was only 11 years old, Mary arrived home from school to find her father on the kitchen floor after suffering a fatal massive heart attack. "It was the worst day of my life," she shares. Mary was placed with her birth mother and under her care, was continually abused. "With all the pressure and abuse, I wasn’t able to finish high school. Eventually I left home, and I struggled on my own for a long time."
Mary moved to Vancouver for a fresh start, and ended up living in an SRO in the Downtown Eastside. She shares, "It was small, dirty, and often felt unsafe. I really felt isolated and lonely." One day, Mary came to Union Gospel Mission for a hot meal, and she shares, "Ever since then, UGM has been a huge part of my life."
"The staff and guests there have truly become my family, giving me support that I never had. I love to help out however I can, whether it’s sharing my story, or just talking to UGM guests who need a friend." Last year, Mary moved into one of UGM's apartments. "It is clean, spacious, and keeps me close to the people I love." She is also currently working towards her grade 12 diploma. Every day, UGM staff and guests are blessed by Mary's sparkling presence, and big heart.
Erin, and her daughter, Adrian, started attending Keats Camp together when Adrian was just two years old. Over the last five years, she has discovered that camp is a place where kids can take on new challenges, receive encouragement, develop self-confidence, and come to recognize their potential.
Being in nature, having adventures and experiencing new things, is an incredibly rich and nourishing environment for a child. It is also nourishing for the adults. As a single-mother, Erin knows that life can be daunting and overwhelming at times. She shares, "Camp has been my place to recharge and get support from other single moms. It has shown me, that I'm not alone, and I always leave feeling a sense of direction and purpose. It has strengthened my relationship with my daughter, and with God."
"Every year is a new adventure and a discovery," says Erin, "I have watched Adrian try new things, develop lasting friendships, and become a determined little girl. She adores the counsellors, and especially loves hearing them share about Jesus, and tell personal stories from their lives. Adrian often talks about being a counsellor when she is old enough."
Camp allows children, and mothers alike, to let go of busy schedules and just relax into the swing of things. "Every year I end up forgetting to wear a watch," Erin confesses, "everything just fades away as we find our rhythm in nature." Both Erin and Adrian cherish the lasting friendships and many incredible memories they've built together at camp.
Every year, kind hearted donors like you send hundreds of children and youth to summer camp through Union Gospel Mission’s camp sponsorship program. At the end of the summer, campers’ thank you cards pour in along with many touching stories. One girl, Jessica, shares “I will never forget my experience. I might have had to leave camp, but I brought God back home with me.” Notes like these are a testimony to the fact that camp is about much more than just a good time – it is a life-changing opportunity for kids to flourish within a healthy environment, and build deep connections with peers, counsellors, and with God.
Forming positive connections such as these is crucial to healthy development. Some kids have limited access to healthy role models and good peer relationships. Proactive programs, such as Summer Camp, give them this opportunity. Jenna, a UGM Camp Outreach Worker, outlines the distinctive benefits of the camp experience, "When kids feel connected to a supportive community, they grow in self-confidence, build coping mechanisms, and gain resiliency skills, all of which are vital in avoiding the pitfalls of gangs, homelessness, and addiction."
The patterns people develop in adolescence, positive or negative, create a foundation for adulthood; indeed, many high-risk behaviors among adults, such as alcohol and drug abuse, first began during their youth. When given access to healthy support systems, kids prove again and again that they are able to bravely meet the challenges life brings.
Jemal has been serving as a UGM Outreach Worker for over five years. Once homeless, addicted to drugs and wrapped-up in a gang life that resulted in him being shot twice, Jemal shares his story of redemption with men and women struggling to break free from a lifestyle of drugs and violence. His daily work in Outreach at UGM allows him to provide hope, and a way out, to people living on Vancouver’s streets who are suffering as he once was.
Having experienced horrific violence as a child in Ethiopia’s civil war, Jemal turned to alcohol to cope, which led to drug addiction. As a result, life fell apart, and he learned what it meant to be truly out of control. It was the overdose of his best friend that was the tipping point for him. “I knew if I didn’t make a change, I was next,” Jemal shares.
Initially Jemal came to UGM for meals and to find refuge at Union Gospel Mission’s emergency shelter, but over time he started to build relationships with trained Outreach Workers and Volunteers. Hearing stories of other people’s recovery inspired him to make a decision that would change his life. With the help of Bruce Curtiss, our Senior Chaplain, Jemal enrolled in UGM’s Alcohol & Drug Recovery Program. A few days later he was in the program, beginning what would be a difficult and life-giving journey to sobriety. Although the pull to return to his old way of life was very strong, Jemal relied on God and fellow residents for support and completed the program.
Today, he is seven years sober and lives to offer others the freedom he has found in Christ. As Jemal puts it, "I lost everything like everybody else, but now I’ve gained everything because I have hope." Now working as a trained Outreach Worker at UGM, Jemal is known for his gentle spirit and tender heart. He has become a beacon of hope to others who are struggling as his once did.
Music always came naturally for John. At 10, he took an interest in learning guitar and started teaching himself songs by ear. However, like many adolescents, as he entered his teenage years, partying with friends took over as his top priority. By the time he turned 14, John knew he was starting to develop a drinking problem, which progressed well into his adulthood. He reflects, "At first drinking gave me courage to be who I wanted to be, but after a while people started looking at me strangely for the things I did when I was drunk but couldn't remember. Then the lying began, and the conning, the manipulating, the excuses, the rationalizations, and the justification. I led a high roller lifestyle."
Struggling to make ends meet, while in between jobs, John ended up homeless and at his wits end. "I started to hear thoughts that the world would probably be a better place without me. I was completely isolated in my addiction, in denial and delusion about where I was at."
John came to Union Gospel Mission for a hot meal, and was welcomed warmly by a trained Outreach Worker. "Out of the blue a staff member came up to me and asked if I had a place to stay for the night. I said no, and he arranged a place for me to stay in the shelter. Basically, my transition into a healthy, happy life started right then and there. I went in for a meal, got a place to stay for the night, and then, while I was in the shelter, I made a decision to give recovery another shot." With the support of UGM counsellors and staff, as well as his fellow recovery program participants, John was able to overcome his addictions, and nurture the things that mattered to him most, and it all started with a meal.
After several years clean and sober, John committed himself to the training and education necessary to become a UGM Outreach Worker so he could help others find the joy and healing that he’d struggled towards for so long. John rediscovered his love of music and realized it could be a powerful tool to bring peace and healing through his work. Now, at 7am most mornings throughout the week, John can be found leading UGM guests in music. His testimony and music continue to touch the hearts of those who are looking for a glimpse of hope, waiting for an invitation to turn their life around and embrace life, once again.
For as long as he can remember, Gary has been volunteering his time to help people who are struggling to survive. This compassionate attitude was inspired by his mother who was dedicated to serving her community through the Army & Navy Airforce Veterans Club, and several other community groups. "As a small child, I often accompanied my mom on her volunteer shifts, and soon, helping others was just a way of life for me," Gary shares.
In 1986, when he was 35, Gary extended a helping hand to his own parents. His mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and needed a caretaker, so he decided to move into his parents home to support them as they grew older. Eventually Gary quit his job to take care of his mother full time. He supported them financially, but after several years money was scarce and Gary struggled to pay the bills. His step father passed away in 1996 and his mother, in 2002. The cost of the funerals was more than he could bear, and as a result of the mounting financial debts, Gary was forced to sell his home.
After couch surfing for a while, Gary ended up homeless and alone. He came to UGM New Westminster and found the support and community he desperately needed. With the help of trained Outreach Workers, Gary was able to get back on his feet and into an apartment. Having experienced the difficulty of being homeless, he made it his mission to connect people to various housing agencies in New Westminster. "Helping others is my life. It's what I do. For me, the greatest reward is seeing people's lives changed for the better," Gary shares. Over the last 10 years he has helped over 100 people get into housing.
Gary is a mainstay at UGM New Westminster and is always ready to talk with other guests who need a hand. "Often, I am the first guy people approach when they're ready to straighten their life out or get into housing. I feel God gives me insight to have the right words for people," he says. Gary's willingness to help anyone who seeks him out has helped many people transform their lives, and UGM New Westminster is blessed to have him in our community.
At UGM, we believe everyone has the right to safe, clean shelter. We have been providing this service for many years, but, until now, the thoughts and experiences of shelter guests have been largely unknown to our readers. What is it like to sleep on a bed that is not your own? What is it like to sleep next to a stranger? Outreach Workers asked our emergency shelter guests a few key questions, to help get a sense of what life is like in shelters. As you hear from these guests, we invite you to let your mind wander, put yourself in those shoes – what would it be like if you had nowhere else to go?
Do you remember the very first time you stayed in a shelter? What was it like for you?
The first time I stayed in a shelter was when I was divorced and I lost everything – my family, my home, my car, which led to drinking and eventually cost me my job.
The first time I stayed in a shelter was when I was 19 years old and I left home. I wanted to be free. The place I stayed at was not what I expected – the snoring, the smelly feet, the bed bugs.
I did not know about shelters – it was all new to me. I had been living on the street for a week and half. Someone told me about a shelter for the homeless at UGM. I checked it out and was very scared. It took two or three nights till I started feeling comfortable.
What would you like our readers to know about shelters?
There is a sense of security and community when you stay in a shelter. Sometimes, I am scared to leave the safety of a shelter environment.
It is more than a place to sleep. There are people who can help you move forward.
Shelter means people can have a warm, safe place – a place to get away from the insanity of conflicts and dilemmas and the issues that weigh on me.
Having a safe, warm, clean place to sleep is invaluable and, while we do not consider it a long term solution, it is a vital aspect of UGM’s continuum of life-changing programs and services. That is why caring Outreach Staff are committed to building relationships with shelter guests, and are always available to deliver the help they need, whether it’s Affordable Housing, Alcohol & Drug Recovery, Employment Services, or referrals to other relevant community agencies.
*Editor’s Note: Answers to the questions above reference several different shelters, not necessarily UGM in particular.
Like many youth, Randy started experimenting with drugs and alcohol in his teenage years. His substance abuse took on new meaning with the tragic and sudden loss of his father, followed closely by a break up with his fiancé. Randy shares, "At that point, everything started to come apart. I was trying to escape the shock, pain and loss I was feeling, and my substance abuse really got out of hand. I hit rock bottom very fast."
Caught in a tailspin, Randy’s life began to unravel and he ended up on the streets struggling to survive, often not eating for days. "After one of these long stretches without food, I came to Union Gospel Mission exhausted, weak, and extremely hungry. An outreach worker let me in, and made sure I got fed that night," Randy recalls.
One evening, with nowhere else to turn, Randy came to UGM for a night of safe shelter. However, he never made into a shelter bed that night. "I was completely broken, I’d lost all my pride, and I knew I needed help. I felt the Lord speak to my heart that night. He said, ‘you need recovery right now.’" That night, instead of going into shelter, Randy went directly into UGM’s Alcohol & Drug Recovery program.
After experiencing a total transformation of life through recovery, Randy knew he wanted to help others overcome their struggles. He became a trained Outreach Worker with UGM and has been working in the Emergency Shelter for the past 5 years. Just as that Outreach Worker reached out to Randy when he needed help, Randy is now able to reach out gently to those who are feeling alone and distraught in their struggles.
Anyone who has ever faced paperwork through complex bureaucracy has had a glimpse of what a homeless person faces when trying to access much-needed resources such as housing, ID and other critical assistance. Without transportation, literacy, good communications skills and an address, many resources available to deserving people become inaccessible.
On Thursday June 14, Union Gospel Mission partnered with over 30 service providers to help eliminate barriers that prevent individuals from moving forward in life. From 11am – 3pm, people struggling with homelessness, poverty, and addiction were invited to UGM to gain access to housing, legal assistance, employment, income assistance and more. People were also able to access free haircuts, bike and wheelchair repair, pet care and food.
The purpose of UGM’s Summer Connect event was to remove barriers that keep people homeless or under-housed. “One 70-year old man in our shelter had been homeless for six years after his social assistance had been cut,” says UGM Senior Chaplain Bruce Curtiss. “As someone who was formerly part of the workforce, he was eligible for the Canadian Pension Plan. He had tried to access it, but without ID or an advocate to help, he got nowhere. He resigned himself to the fact that nothing more could be done, and in order to live he collected bottles and slept in shelters. It wasn’t until a case worker started talking with him that everything changed.” Curtiss says this man is just one of many examples where UGM regularly helps fill the gaps. Today, he is safely and securely housed—and it all started by connecting with a case worker.
This past October, hundreds of visitors hit the streets of the Downtown Eastside to participate in Homelessness Action Week (HAW). As part of UGM’s “Eastside Stride,” Vancouver residents were able to tour the neighbourhood while being guided by a DTES resident. For the second year in a row, these tours offered life-changing engagement for the whole community. By allowing people to learn the history and wrestle with its complexities, participants were able to engage with the neighbourhood, its story, and its residents.
Developed by Union Gospel Mission, in partnership with Mission Possible and with support from the City of Vancouver, the “Eastside Stride” highlights the beauty, rich history, and diverse groups that comprise the neighbourhood while considering some of the issues that have impacted the area for a long time. It also offers empowering and dignified employment to people experiencing many kinds of barriers. Guides lead the walk, a trained outreach worker accompanies, and anyone can participate on the tour which takes people through Oppenheimer, Strathcona, Gastown, Chinatown, and the Hastings Corridor. For many people, the “Eastside Stride” is an eye-opening opportunity. And for others—like Bobby—it’s completely life-changing.
Over a year ago, Bobby didn’t think much of the DTES, let alone have a desire to visit our neighbourhood. He understood the link between compassion and giving financially but never thought he’d get involved personally. That all changed after Bobby participated in a walking tour during Homelessness Action Week in 2012. Hearing the stories of complex hope that permeate the DTES, Bobby realized he could no longer live disconnected on the periphery. He decided to get involved.
“I realized that the DTES is not a place to avoid, but a place to engage,” Bobby explains. “I saw that, at UGM, it’s not just about keeping people alive for tomorrow—it’s about investing in their lives. I felt like I could make a difference here.” This year, Bobby took a bold change of direction and applied to UGM. Now a Ministry Support Worker, he hasn’t looked back since.
Safety is a primary concern for women living in the Downtown Eastside, and after identifying a great need, UGM sought to create a safe place for women to rest, receive care from trained Outreach Workers, and get connected to life-changing programs. In February 2012, Union Gospel Mission opened its Women's Day Shelter, in partnership with the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre (DEWC). After two years running the Day Shelter, the need has only become more evident. We operate at full capacity on a regular basis. Our staff are now seeing more vulnerable women come to UGM seeking help, many who had never come through our doors before.
Most of the children and youth we serve throughout the year live in the Downtown Eastside, where they must fight hard to make positive choices amidst peer pressure to do drugs and get involved with gangs. We have identified a need for increased programming and support to the vulnerable youth we serve. As a result, this fall, UGM introduced two new teen programs. Our Co-ed drop-in provides teens with a safe place to connect with peers, staff and volunteers throughout the week, while our new Youth Leadership Program helps teens develop leadership skills which they practice by planning and running special children’s programs.
Every day, Union Gospel Mission’s Outreach Workers connect with individuals struggling with addiction, and facing a host of barriers which hold them back from a life of healing through recovery. In an effort to help remove these barriers UGM introduced a new program called Gateway in June of this year. Gateway provides up to 10 individuals at a time with a safe place to rest, stabilize, and regain physical and mental strength. Distractions are stripped away as Gateway participants meet with UGM staff daily to set attainable goals, and start taking steps towards those goals. There is a strong emphasis on recovery, whether that means applying for UGM’s recovery program, or another more suitable program.
This year, UGM New Westminster introduced a new Church Internship Program (CIP). Internships may run for 3, 6, or 9 months and are available to people who are 18 years or older. This unique experience allows interns to experience hands-on outreach work and ministry. It includes an educational element for those who are seeking God's call upon their lives and who wish to learn more about putting their faith into action. It is our hope that interns return to their churches equipped with the knowledge, skills, and passion needed to help their church reach out to people in their community who may be struggling with poverty, homelessness, or addiction.
See how UGM New Westminster is changing livesGary’s Story
Outreach at UGM is all about building relationships with community members with the ultimate goal of helping people transform their lives. Through UGM Case Management services, staff are able to assess the individual needs of those we serve, and work with them to set attainable goals and create longer-term action plans. Through this process, we have helped many individuals apply for and gain housing, get into recovery programs, and find employment. Staff partner with external agencies, such as mental health clinics and legal services, to make sure each individual has their best opportunity for success.
One consistent barrier for many people in the Downtown Eastside is a lack of proper identification. Without ID, finding safe housing, opening a bank account, cashing cheques, or even the most basic right to vote, become nearly impossible. Early this year, UGM’s Community Engagement team worked with Elections BC on an outside-the-box idea to have prescription pill bottles recognized as valid ID. After a diligent vetting process, the initiative was approved and through the combined efforts of our neighbourhood colleagues, Elections BC and UGM, we contributed to help deliver over 400 DTES community members to the polls in order to vote. Getting DTES residents out to the polls in an initiative UGM has committed to replicate every municipal, provincial, and federal election going forward.
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