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Union Gospel Mission Women’s Shelter celebrates one year, looks to the future

Vancouver, BC—Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Union Gospel Mission Women’s Day Shelter, an initiative that began as a three-month pilot project. While UGM has worked specifically with women for decades, it wasn’t until 2012 that UGM was able to secure dedicated space and resources to run a shelter for women and mothers struggling with homelessness, poverty and addiction. This year, 243 women found refuge at UGM’s shelter, many of them making positive changes. UGM is further locking in plans for reaching this vulnerable group in an effort to break the cycle of poverty and addiction. 
 “It’s a new group of women coming to UGM’s day shelter,” explains Barb Atkins, Manager of the Women and Families Centre. “These are women who felt unsafe in a basic drop-in centre environment—they were much too vulnerable. Some of them have experienced extreme abuse or suffered deep tragedy and some have engaged in survival sex trade. They have experienced significant trauma in their lives and many of them experience PTSD.”
Candice Harper, Supervisor of the Day Shelter explains that the lives of most of these women are so difficult that life expectancy is a mere 45 years old.  
“Some of these women have spent years simply trying to survive horrific situations,” explains Harper, “but underneath some very rough exteriors are beautiful but deeply wounded human beings. We spend hours with these women, building trust and safety—things that are completely foreign to most of them. And yet, as time goes on, I see these very women who have experienced so much pain, start to turn around and care about us as outreach workers. It actually becomes a two-way street.” 
Initially opened with only 12 beds, the shelter can now accommodate up to 20. Ultimately, safe, permanent housing, recovery from addiction, and healing from deep and complex trauma are the desired end goals for the women, but it’s a long and sometimes seemly impossible road. Success is measured in smaller, but profound stepping stones like being able to ask for help, realizing that life could be different, and feeling safe—all part of the process of healing and recovery.  
 “As a staff member,” says Harper, “I feel like I am really contributing to the solution, not just reacting to the crisis.” 
The shelter’s success is only the start of the extensive women-centered support services the charity will provide. Behind the scenes, UGM has been working with leading women’s health and addiction experts, and speaking with countless service providers and guests to hear about their needs and to determine which gaps are not being met. 
The biggest gap found in the spectrum of services for women on the Downtown Eastside is that of stabilization beds; up to 80% of women do not make it from detox to recovery. This is the first gap that UGM is seeking to fill. Currently, the majority of women leaving detox are referred back to shelters or unstable housing. UGM’s proposed 24-hour Stabilization Bed Project is aimed at stabilizing women and transitioning them into an appropriate long-term recovery program or suitable long-term housing to suit their needs. 
Until plans can be solidified and renovations occur, the day-shelter remains as is, assisting up to 20 women a day. For Atkins, the difference even shelter makes during the day is “amazing.”  
“To see the women come through the front door with the weight of the world on their shoulders—and on their back, literally—because everything they have in the world is with them, and then to see them safely in our facility, with their housecoat and their hand-knit slippers, saying they feel like they’re at the spa, is absolutely incredible. They arrived tired, dirty and untrusting and become rested, showered and softer—it’s a real transformation.” 
Union Gospel Mission has been feeding hope and changing lives of men, women, youth, and children for over 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.
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