Shelter From The Storm

For months, the government has been telling all of us: “Stay safe by staying home as much as you can.” Imagine hearing that message if you didn’t have somewhere to call home. It’s devastating.

I work in the Downtown Eastside and, for so many people I know and love, that’s a painful reality. Having nowhere safe to land deeply impacts a person: emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically.

Ken Wong has worked at Union Gospel Mission for just over 8 years. During that time, he’s served as a ministry support worker, in UGM’s Shelter, as a Case Manager for our community members, and most recently as Supervisor for both Case Management and the Shelter.

Safe Shelter: A Necessary Lifeline

I know this because of people who rely on our emergency shelter, like John*. John is a lively musician, who is experiencing homelessness. He was just talking to me about wanting to play music in public places. He’s passionate about music but is now constantly being asked to pack up and move away from people. He has nowhere to go in the day to do what he loves – and even fewer safe places to rest his head at night. 

That’s why, ever since COVID-19 changed the world, our staff has worked around the clock changing the way that we provide shelter to keep it open and safe. For John and others like him, safe shelter has always been a necessary lifeline – but now the need for a safe place to escape a deadly virus is needed more than ever.

Shelter During COVID-19

When our shelter opens for the night, our staff—decked out in PPE and wearing masks—greet the men at the door; there a health screening takes place before they are given a hygiene kit, an opportunity to shower, and a chance to do their laundry. Sometimes our guests go days without access to hygiene supplies. And a hot shower and fresh toothbrush, alongside the care and compassion of staff, can whisper hope into the hearts of our shelter guests. 

Honestly, the need for shelter is surging and is only going to grow as the weather gets worse. Luckily, our shelter was designed to mitigate the spread of illness. We have multiple small rooms with beds, rather than one large open space for everyone at once. We’ve spaced beds further apart by expanding into new areas, and we give masks to anyone who wants one.

Our frontline staff, working with people like John, truly are heroes. As their supervisor, I am constantly reminded of their incredible strength, compassion and resilience. And the truth is, I see the same things in so many of our shelter guests. At times like this, we need to continue safely walking alongside our guests as they navigate steps towards an empowered life.

All UGM Frontline Workers must wear PPE and face masks when serving community guests.

We Need To End the Stigma Around Homelessness

Unfortunately, being homeless is very traumatic and taking those life-changing steps can be extremely difficult. It affects a lot of your capacities to navigate life. Spending time with guests like John makes me hope that more people learn about the systemic issues that contribute to homelessness and poverty; like the housing crisis, systemic racism, the complexities of intergenerational trauma or the difficulties surrounding substance use disorder. 

I also hope that people start to combat the unfair stigma that is often unjustifiably placed on my friends.  Blaming folks who have experienced extreme hardship like abuse or trauma doesn’t make sense. Those are things that can happen to anyone. And sometimes all it comes down to is the luck of where you’re born and where that fits into the greater system. And that has huge ramifications because we know, especially during the winter during a pandemic, that people without safe shelter are at a far greater risk of suffering, illness, and death.

Our shelter provides refuge from all this. I refuse to lose hope. I know that lives will be transformed, I’ve had the privilege of seeing it happen. Despite the world screeching to a halt during the pandemic, our outreach staff and case managers have continued to offer safe shelter for hundreds, and even secured permanent housing for some, over the last few months. When lives are changed this way, we need to celebrate it. There is just something so restorative in that.

I know, in my heart, that the more we work together to shelter them from life’s storms, battle stigma, and build each other up despite the pandemic, the better this world will be.

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*Name has been changed to protect our valued guest’s identity

By Ken Wong