Jeniffer Johnstone – Central City Foundation


September 24, 2020

The Central City Foundation is a longstanding non-profit organization that offers grants to fund community-led solutions. Through community partnerships, Central City works to invest in community infrastructure (such as low-income housing) and community programs (such as indigenous programming and womens’ centres). During the pandemic, Central City Foundation played a lead role in the formation of the Coordinated Community Response Network, bringing various non-profits together and taking charge of the organizational process.

Below, Jennifer discusses how investments and grants work within the non-profit sector, how needs are identified on the Downtown EastSide, and the overwhelming importance of allowing the community to lead. She touches on how the pandemic amplified the need for connection and communication through cell-phones, the issue of food insecurity, and safe housing.

This interview took place on September 24th, 2020. Some of the information discussed below was true at the time of this interview, but may currently be different. 

Sydney: So Jennifer, could you begin by telling us a bit about Central City Foundation’s role on the DTES?

Jennifer: Central City Foundation began 113 years ago when a small group of Vancouverites came together to help their neighbours in need and begin something called the Central City Mission Society Corporation. It was a non-profit corporation, and they sold $10 shares in the community. They raised about $40,000 and rebuilt the Central City mission at 233 Abbott St. that then served the inner city, what’s now the DTES, for about 80 years. The building still stands today and you can see a little cornerstone that says “Central City Mission, 1910”. 

In 1907 there really was no such thing as any kind of social welfare. There was barely a hospital and there was the YWCA/YMCA that existed and, in those days, they didn’t do much in terms of social services so there was no welfare and no unemployment, nothing. Some folks opened a mission: it was a shelter, a soup kitchen, and they also built a non-denominational gathering space so that people could have spiritual support from various faith-based groups that were emerging. And they had a full-time tailor as well as job readiness and employment programs. From the very first days they also had what we now know as addiction treatment programs, and then for the next 70-80 years it was a place for doing all those things and then piloting lots of innovative programs along the way. So youth group homes were born at the Central City Mission building and then, in the 60’s, handed over to the Province of British Columbia who stepped in with the new Ministry of Social Services to help support young people. 

And then by the late 80’s there were lots of organizations on the DTES doing social work, and what there wasn’t was a long-term care facility for folks who were aging in place in the inner city. The building we were in was not a suitable building for the folks who were living there who were no longer transient and were living there permanently. So the board sold that building and some other real estate to build the Central City Lodge, which is at Pender and Homer Street, which serves the inner city with about 130 complex care beds and an addiction treatment program for men. It’s the only place like it in the whole wide world as far as we know. And then took the rest of the money to establish the Central City Foundation. So everything flows through the Foundation.

 We are a grant-making foundation, so we provide grants throughout the community through our grant-making partners to fund what we call community-led solutions. But we also invest our capital in the community in social purpose real estate – so that’s low-income housing and facilities that provide healthcare and family support, Indigenous programming, a long-term treatment centre for young people up near Keremeos which is the only one in BC dealing with severe mental health and addictions issues. And here, we’re home to the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective and Crosstown Clinic, which is the only medical heroin distribution centre to help people with substance abuse in the inner city, and the family centre in Strathcona. It’s run by the Aboriginal Housing Society and is home to their early years program, which is a complex program with services and support to Indigenous services and families. 

Sydney: So you talked a little about the various social welfare initiatives that Central City takes on, like addiction treatment and social support real estate – but how does Central City determine what life improvement looks like?

Jennifer: There’s two things. One is the core value of Central City Foundation, which is that we believe in the intrinsic value of human beings. That every person has gifts and capabilities and belongs here if they are here, we also understand that the inner city and DTES are neighbourhoods that have been created by decades of colonial, racist, and sexist policy that have created this community. As a result, the DTES is not an accident – it’s a series of policy choices to contain people who are poor and struggling with different kinds of challenges. When we are investing in this community in one form or another, whether it be through grants or community infrastructure or getting creative and inventing new tools, we are mobilizing the broader community to support this community and specifically community-led solutions. Central City Foundation is not meant to be the expert in the solutions, our community partners are. This means that we work with organizations where those most affected by a problem, issue, or challenge have meaningful input into the design or delivery of programs and services.And although we have a formal application process, we work with them to understand the needs of the community.We look to invest in programs, both social enterprises and non-profits/charities, that are both trying to help people address their day-to-day poverty but also which  are working to a bigger solution and working towards systemic solutions. Our grants tend to be capital grants, so they go towards space or equipment. We truly believe that by holding space for community, that is both physical space and space that we create when we work in collaboration, is key to being able to develop from the ground up the initiatives that are going to make an impact and change peoples’ lives. 

Sydney: In that, you very briefly touched on one of the initiatives you worked on during the pandemic. Would you be able to speak a little more about how Central City has been helping the inner city during the pandemic and a brief snapshot of some of the support that’s been given?

Jennifer: The lockdown hit two days after our quarterly board meeting and we suspended all our usual activities. Instead, we reached out to each and every one of our community partners to find out what their plans were and what lockdown was going to do to them and people they served and how we could help. We reached out to our donors too to see how they were doing and to make sure they knew that we were there and would be able to connect them and that we would continue to serve the community.We moved to a safe and mostly socially-distanced remote environment and then we fast-tracked some grants, including for The Dugout who we helped initially fund back in 1956, to ensure that they would still be able to operate as the only 7 day a week food distribution in the mornings..We helped form a Coordinated Community Response Network which, at its peak, brought together some 60 different organizations and individuals in the inner city to support all the people who, when the rest of us were sent home to stay safe, were forced out onto the streets. Potluck Café – who is a long time community partner of ours – we supported them in food delivery and production because all of the local, usual places where folks could go to get meals were closed, and the places where people would spend their time indoors were closed. We worked with capacity investors to set up a special fund to support Potluck and the work they were doing; in the end, Potluck raised about $700k and distributed about 140k meals in those three months.

 We also began using our community base to leverage money from other funders.  My colleague Diana spent a great deal of time leveraging in-kind donations, and helped to leverage the 6,000 cell phones that we were able to get to community groups to distribute to the community,Those are some of the things we did to change our way of doing what we do and leveraging; trying to figure out what value we could bring in the situation. And of course we also have buildings in the DTES that are housing buildings, so we worked closely with our housing operator and property managers to make sure that people were safe and supported during COVID.

Sydney: So would you tell us a bit more about your role within the Community Coordinated Response Network?

Jennifer: So, I attended those meetings three times a week, bringing our network to that, listening and learning, asking questions of others, connecting folks, and that network was an awesome place to connect organizations who hadn’t worked together before. It was great to be able to foster that and bring in information about applications and funding sources and things like that, and in some cases were able to directly influence those funds to make sure they got to the organizations that needed them most. While the government was getting organized, the philanthropic sector was funding. And many of the grassroots and frontline groups on the DTES aren’t charities themselves, so we needed to help foster those connections so the money could get to the folks who were doing the work on the streets.

Sydney: In terms of the funding applications that you spoke about, did your assessment practices for the funding applications change at all?

Jennifer: I wouldn’t say our assessment practices changed, but we suspended our application process. We have always been relationship funders so it sounds like a complicated process to get funding but we don’t want somebody to fill out an application if there isn’t a chance they won’t get funded. We work with applicants to make sure that their application is likely to succeed. Of course, at the end, we have to go through our governance to ensure that the final grant is awarded, but we work very hard to make sure that we’re bringing forward grants that are most likely to be funded. So rather than going through that process we contacted our partners directly, so we didn’t wait for folks to come to us, to find out what their needs were and then our board was ready to award grants as needed rather than through our usual processes. But in terms of assessing them we continued to use the criteria that we always have which is working with organizations where those with lived experience are central to deciding what services are needed and, in many cases, delivering those services. And we suspended our site visits, of course, which is part of our process to keep people safe in the inner city.

Sydney: So I guess that because of the way you go about the applications you really wouldn’t say that the demand for funding changed at all?

Jennifer: Well it did in the sense that we normally do capital grants, so we did lots of different types of grants. And we try, whenever possible, to do leveraging and what other funders wouldn’t do. So Embers and CleanStart came together to re-deploy some of the members at Embers who lost their work opportunities because CleanStart had the need for more workers as they have the contracts for sanitizing in all of the housing buildings in the DTES. So we funded a grant to both and, in the end, almost 90 people were re-deployed and had continuing employment. 

So that kind of thing where other funders don’t necessarily work closely with community groups in the inner city – we have a deep trust of organizations in the inner city, we don’t need to check their financial statements or anything since we know Embers finds hundreds of jobs every day, we know CleanStart is a social enterprise that employs people from the inner city and provides them training. Because we knew them, we could advise our board to make that grant very quickly and easily. And we were able to find a partner because we could pick up the phone and call Vancity and ask them to match us so we could double the grant, and they did with just a phone call. So we used our networks and our powers for good in that way.

Sydney: So what was it like reaching out to community partners when the pandemic started?

Jennifer: As you can imagine there was a lot of fear and concern. For the most part these are organizations who knew that, if their doors weren’t open, people wouldn’t have a place to go. So there were a lot of conversations about how they were trying to change their service delivery model. For example for lots of outreach workers who had to find ways to connect to people virtually, or at least over the phone, this meant getting cell phones into peoples’ hands with free plans. Telus stepped up with massive numbers of free plans, including data so people could be online. Battered Women Support is an example. Because of course, women who are living with violence are now locked down with their abusers and don’t have any of the usual avenues for safety they may have built into their lives. So it was about trying to direct other funders and foundations to ensure that they would have the funding to do that as well as getting the technology in place to make sure that these women would have connection in lockdown.

Through the community response fund, we got a picture of the degree of food insecurity across Metro Vancouver. All kinds of organizations that used to provide everything from support services for families with children with learning disabilities, faith-based organizations, youth activity organizations, all said what they need from us is food. Grocery cards and food. It became clear how insecure so many families are in our community; when folks were laid off, even temporarily while they were waiting for CERB to come in, that gap was a critical one and thousands of people across our community were made food insecure. 

Sydney: In terms of how Central City carries out its mission and its values, what other types of challenges were brought about through the pandemic?

Jennifer: There’s an underlying positive of this to me. When the lockdown happened, organizations had to come together. At first the conversation was not about “how do I save my organization” but rather “what do I need to do to serve the community”. So the people in the community were the centre around which the organizing happened. Many formerly opposed organizations disappeared and many were able to really say “okay, the people in need are at the centre of this, how do we help them?” And there was a tremendous amount of cooperation among organizations and openness to new ways of working together as well as innovations in terms of how to reach people in need; and not as much worried about whether it’s organization A, B, or C through which the funding or programming will run but rather how we will work together. It certainly is a challenge for us to do relationship-building in the midst of a pandemic and it continues to be a huge challenge, lovely as it is to meet people and work with people on a screen it is not the same. And so we found an ongoing challenge in continuing to build the right relationships with our Indigenous-led community partners to ensure that we are still showing up in the ways that we need to in building and fostering those relationships. So the only socially-distanced gathering that the Central City Foundation has attended in any way, shape, or form in the last seven months was a gathering of some members of our board and members of the board of one of our Indigenous-led community partners because we’re embarking on a new project. And the beginnings of that requires an investment in the time and care in the relationship-building and the trust-building that’s necessary to work together, which is hard when we can’t get in the room with folks. 

Sydney: So in terms of the new ways of collaborating with people and these new things that are happening for Central City, can you see this continuing on or resulting in long-term change?

Jennifer: Central City Foundation is a tiny but mighty group of people. We’re about a $50 million foundation and about half of that is invested in social-purpose real estate with the other half invested in grants. At the moment, it’s a staff of three. What’s not sustainable is the pace. Literally on screen from early morning to late at night and, for some of us, seven days a week. There are many ways in which we could use technology and our new ability to communicate virtually, and build it into an enhanced model of relationship-building without being the core of relationship-builiding. And of course we’re all going to have to learn about how to pace a Zoom day – I’ve seen my calendar where there’s truly no break, it’s just meeting after meeting. When we do these things in person we’ll at least get up and walk to somebody’s office or to our community group or the board room. For those who work in the social justice and the community sector, the ability to do more is awesome but the ability to pace that to ensure that the work we’re doing is still good work and to create a workplace that is respectful, supportive, and a place where people can do their best work and not the most work, will continue to be a challenge. Today was awesome. I had to physically leave my office to see something in-person in order to have the meeting (socially distanced and outdoors and all). But there’s also figuring out how to use these tools and this ability and how folks access technology. I think these can be used as tools of inclusion but that there’s also the possibility that they can be used as tools of exclusion. 

Sydney: On the topic of thinking to the future, what are some of the urgencies that you can see coming up in the next 6-12 months in terms of the communities you work with?

Jennifer: Interestingly, our grant program responds to community needs. We do capital grants because almost nobody else does capital grants and there is always a need for equipment and space. And our commitment to holding that space for the community means that, for almost 20 years, we’ve been the go-to place for inner-city organizations when they need to move or open a new space or do things like that. And of course all of that was suspended during the lockdown although the lack of affordable and suitable spaces for non-profits didn’t end with the pandemic. I think we have some interesting challenges in that regard so right now what we’re doing is working our networks to try to find space that can be borrowed in the short run for organizations who are unable to deliver under the new social distancing rules. Some non-profits need larger spaces they can go to to deliver programming and services. I think that within that are some interesting conversations and innovations in the long-run about how to use space. The biggest empty space right now that the community is working very hard trying to figure out how to access is the closed Army & Navy buildings. As we approach winter with the limited outside respite sites that we have, there are lots of folks trying to convince the owners of the real estate to lend it for respite and perhaps shelter during the winter months. A number of community partners are facing challenges around capital needs for moving. The Potluck Café and Catering Society are a good example of that, they are underway with a million dollar plus capital campaign. They have to move from where they are and have secured a great, affordable space and are supported by a grant but there is still a huge gap in funding. So Central City has been working to talk with other funders to develop what our contribution can be and help them.