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Taking it to the Street: Union Gospel Mission offers an innovative program to help the homeless across Metro Vancouver

Vancouver, BC – At 11:30 on a Monday night in Metro Vancouver, a large Dodge Sprinter Van cruises down a quiet street. The driver and passenger scan the urban landscape, paying special attention to the areas that most people ignore: the darkest reaches of parks, under bridges or overpasses, in the far corners of parking garages, and in the bush behind warehouses.

“There!” says the passenger, pointing to a barely visible figure curled in on itself beneath some ragged blankets at the side of a warehouse. The driver, a big man in a Canucks toque, pulls the van about ten metres from the figure and flips an overhead switch, flooding the area with light. The passenger heads into the back of the van and fills a white grocery bag with supplies: a sandwich, a couple of oranges, and a new pair of socks. Across his forearm is tattooed the words: “LOVE & SERVICE.” He pours some hot chocolate in a paper cup and heads over to the man.<

“Union Gospel Mission!” He says, still a few metres away. “Do you want some food?”

The staff of Union Gospel Mission’s Mobile Mission Program, Arnie Mulessa – operator and driver – and Scott Robertson –  Outreach worker and “spotter” – roam from 7:00pm to 3:00am throughout Metro Vancouver. They offer food, clothing, hygiene products, blankets, and information about local services for the poor and a friendly face to the hundreds of Metro Vancouver’s homeless who live outside the Downtown Eastside, where many services are concentrated. They visit Burnaby and New Westminster once or twice per week, keeping record of everyone they contact, and have done so since January 2008.

The figure beside the warehouse stirs and a man’s head emerges from the blankets, blinking in the light as he processes the offer of food. He is in his sixties, with worn, dark skin and deep blue eyes. “Yeah!” he says, finally. “Thanks! You don’t happen to have any socks, do you?” Scott hands over the bag and replies, “They’re already in there. You can never have enough socks out here, right?” They start conversing.

Arnie wanders over after a few minutes, joining in on the talk. The conversation is sparse, but not tense. The man says he has been living outside for over ten years, and drinks hard. He’s not sure how much longer his body can take it. They talk about where other homeless people sleep in the area, so that Arnie and Scott can go visit them. After a few minutes, Arnie says, “Well, when you’re ready to get sober, let us know.” The man nods slowly. “Ok,” he says. “Thanks.”

For Arnie, the Mobile Mission is about far more than food. “The sandwiches and conversation are a way of building trust,” he says. “Trust is the biggest issue for people living on the street. If they trust you, then when they’re ready to get off the street, or get clean and sober, they’ll come with you.”

UGM’s live-in Alcohol and Drug Recovery Program , with locations for men in Vancouver and for women in the Fraser Valley, had 58 graduates last year. It combines the “twelve step” recovery program with counselling sessions and life-skills classes on topics like nutrition, relapse prevention and conflict resolution. The program is rooted in the Christian faith, but people of all faiths or no faith are welcome.

And it is working: over three quarters of graduates from the six month program are clean and sober for at least a year. And after graduation, Union Gospel Mission offers support in finding employment, affordable housing, and other basic necessities. The program receives no government funding, and is completely funded by donations from individuals, businesses, and groups who want to help make a difference.

Arnie and Scott hope that the public will become involved in their work. “If you see a homeless person who you think we can help, give us a call and leave us a message, and we’ll try and connect with them,” says Arnie. The number for the Mobile Mission is 604-786-4668.

When asked about his most meaningful moment on the Mobile Mission, Arnie recalls a man whom he and Scott helped off the street and into sobriety. He hadn’t talked to his daughter in twelve years, and Scott had been encouraging him to call her. “To watch the expression on his face from the day before,” recalls Arnie, “and the fear that he had to call his daughter…to see his face after he got in touch with her, that was the defining moment for me. That is what this is all about.“

Union Gospel Mission has been reaching hungry, hurting, and homeless men, women, youth, and children for nearly 70 years. Through its 8 locations in Metro Vancouver and the city of Mission, UGM provides counseling, education, safe housing, and alcohol and drug recovery to those struggling with poverty, homelessness, and addiction. The heart of the mission is to demonstrate God’s transforming love, ease the burden of the most vulnerable, rebuild the lives of the broken, and offer dignity to those who feel cast aside. UGM is a proud member of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities. To find out more, visit www.ugm.ca.