Rachael – Union Gospel Mission


July 27, 2020


Union Gospel Mission (UGM) is an organization that has serviced the Downtown Eastside and metro Vancouver for 80 years. During this time, they have operated with the mission of walking alongside individuals to transform lives, and by extension, communities. When someone comes to visit UGM, it’s their goal to journey with people by supporting them long-term. Below, Rachael speaks of how Union Gospel Mission adapted to the new restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, vulnerability, and the importance of maintaining a strong sense of community during times of uncertainty.

Sydney: Can you tell us a bit about a guest’s typical experience at Union Gospel Mission (UGM)? 

Rachael: At UGM we have a system that we call our continuum of care. People start their journey’s at different spaces – but generally, a typical person’s journey might be connecting with an outreach worker as they’re doing streetwalk’s, or they might find out about or hear about UGM from one of their friends and come to us, usually for a meal or a cup of coffee. From there, either during their first visit when they’re here for a meal, or when they come back, they’ll be connected with an outreach worker. An outreach worker will just ask them how they’re doing, and get to know them, and then kind of see what they need. Maybe they need a place to stay – If someone doesn’t have shelter, we say that we have shelter for them to come and stay the night. Sometimes there’s barriers that people have to employment: whether that’s education, or some people just don’t have ID – our case managers work with people to figure out what those barriers are. So we make a pathway for someone to get into recovery and walk through that process in a community of people who are experiencing the same things. If it’s someone who just needs help finding housing, our case manager is able to look through their networks and see what available housing could best fit that person’s needs. We have social housing as well, and so sometimes that could be with us or with someone else, and so ultimately we want to walk alongside someone and realize that it’s not just a journey from A to B – it can look different for so many people, but we really want to support people from step-one and along the way. We just really want to see people flourish in the ways that they desire to. We have seven different locations across metro vancouver, so those locations are kind of different parts of that journey. Some are recovery program spaces, some are social housing, and as I said some are in the DTES or in New West as resource centres. 

Sydney: How did UGM’s work change when the pandemic hit? 

Rachael: The wellbeing of our guests was a top priority. It was crucial that we offered the best possible care while ensuring that our guests were safe. Many of our guests rely on UGM for meals, shelter, and safety – for their survival. Their lives are on the line, and so we knew that we needed to continue operating and serving them with dignity and respect, even with those extra measures to keep them safe during the pandemic. As COVID-19 forced many other organizations to scale down, UGM was able to scale up to fill those gaps, and so we were able to provide between 30-60 more meals than normal during the height of the pandemic to meet that surging need. We continued to maintain our essential services like emergency shelters and housing along with meals. As we were continuing to offer those life saving support services, we took more steps to protect our guests and staff, including wearing PPE, just to make sure that people were safe and that we weren’t passing on the virus to each other or to our guests, some of whom are the most vulnerable in our city. 

We have people coming into our shelter everyday who have different kinds of illnesses in general, and so with the pandemic we continued protocol around that, so we didn’t really have to shift the way we did our shelter. We implemented more social distancing, but with the design of our shelter having different rooms already, spacing people out, following the recommendations by having people sleep toe-to-head as opposed to heads being right on top of each other, and then we also had people on separate floors and opened up our drop-in space to have more beds socially distanced in there as well. We have 72 beds total and so that helped us spread out everyone better. And then we continued screening guests for COVID-19 symptoms, just making sure that our shelter could be a safe refuge for people who are coming in to stay for the night, ensuring that they knew that we were making sure who was safe and healthy to be sleeping in the shelter at night. 

Sydney: The pandemic has affected all of us in so many different ways, but I imagine that it’s probably a bit of a different story for people living in poverty. Can you tell me a bit about UGM’s observations as a care provider about how COVID-19 has affected those who are living in poverty? 

Rachael: COVID-19 only deepened the level of poverty for thousands of people, men, women and children, in Vancouver and across the Fraser Valley. For people who are experiencing homelessness, COVID-19 is a matter of life and death. When you live without a home, when you live without a sink, those protective practices – like social distancing, self-isolating, and hygiene – are nearly impossible. They didn’t know if community centres or libraries would close. They had to be creative because there was nowhere to sit down and rest their feet. They didn’t know if they could get shelter somewhere, they didn’t know if they could go and find meals, and so people were just so frantic and stressed out. On our mobile mission rescue vehicle that goes out, we saw that more people were moving away from city centres because they didn’t wanna be exposed to the virus, and the weather was getting a bit warmer as the months went on. We noticed that people out there were trying to social distance, but they were even further away from essential services out in the suburbs. A lot of the services are concentrated in the DTES, so when you’re out in the suburbs you already don’t have many services, but COVID made this even worse. Also with low-income families, when schools closed and budgets were tight, parents who weren’t used to having their kids home all the time were scrambling to put food on the tables. They were stunned that the school programs they relied on, that had meal programs were scaled back or even indefinitely closed. We don’t even know what school is gonna look like early in the fall, and so resources had to be stretched even thinner than they already were. When you’re living in poverty, budgets don’t account for those kinds of emergencies. And so parents are feeling really burnt out, emotionally stressed, and financially burdened. 

Someone I talked to at the beginning of the pandemic was a senior, and I met with him for the first time after he came to one of our meals. He said it was the first time he had ever had to come to UGM for a meal. He said he was travelling around and usually comes back to Vancouver, but because of COVID-19 he was laid off from his job, and he didn’t have a lot of family or supports, a SRO or a motel, and all of a sudden he found that he needed to come to us for meals. He was so ashamed. He told us his friends told him to apply for CERB or EI and he was telling me how he’s never had to ask for help in his life. I told him that it was normal, that a lot of people were experiencing that, but he just said that he was so grateful for a warm meal and it kind of boosted him a little bit before he went to the government office to see if he could apply for some benefits. So those kinds of situations, I don’t know if he was afraid of getting COVID-19, but he was definitely financially impacted by the repercussions of not having a job. I’m just so glad that we were able to be there for him, so that in that moment he could feel stability and feel safe, and be supported. 

Sydney: Can you tell us about the mobile rescue vehicle that you mentioned and what that looks like? 

Rachael: So we have two mobile rescue mission vehicles: One is in Vancouver, and services metro-vancouver, and one is in the Fraser Valley, and they reach out to Abbotsford and Mission area. Day to day they go out and they build relationships with people who are living on the fringes of society, they might be under bridges or in wooded areas, or just kind of far away from regular support. They build relationships with them and offer survival gear here and there, depending on the weather, if it’s in the wintertime this could include sleeping bags and hand warmers and different kinds of clothing, hot drinks and meals. In the summer, it’s things to help get people refreshed from the summer heat. They provide those immediate needs but also build those relationships. A lot of the time people who are living on the fringes of the suburbs or other cities, they’re feeling a little lonely, a little disconnected. A lot of people are so far out that they didn’t know what was happening with COVID-19. The result of these rescue vehicles has allowed us to continuously meet one on one with guests, and over the years foster trust. We have people who are now able to say that they actually want to come get recovery, or that they’re kind of sick of living out in a tent that’s rainy all the time, maybe their health is deteriorating, and they feel like they want to come into a shelter – because they feel safe enough, because they know the people who have been connecting with them over months and years. And so these are vital for our community just in general. People know to expect the mobile missions, they know which days they’ll be coming and they know there will be supplies that are gonna be brought, and people they can connect with. We knew that during COVID-19 this would continue to be an essential life-line for people. During the last few months of the pandemic, we’ve seen double the amount of people that we were seeing before the pandemic. We just know that consistency is important. When a lot of things are shifting and changing, when different service providers didn’t know if they could offer the same services, we made sure that we were still there. Our workers that I talked to that are on mobile missions, said that’s what people really appreciate. That they can depend and know that we’re coming and that that’s not gonna change. If they can’t access certain things, they know that on this day, the mobile missions will come and they’ll be able to help with certain things. That consistency and that stability is bringing a lot of peace of mind for some people.

Sydney: So with the meals and the shelter and the housing, especially during the pandemic, are you able to kind of cater to all the demand that there is for meals, shelter, and housing? 

Rachael: That’s a good question. During the height of the pandemic, right when everything was happening, as I mentioned we saw an increase in the meals that we were serving and we were able to meet that demand. It just took a few days to figure out for us. We don’t normally prepare for a certain number, and then we were having way more people in line who needed meals. So then the next day we had meals, we made more just to make sure that we weren’t having to turn anyone away. And then after a while that initial increase, that initial surge tapered off as people were getting CERB and as people were getting other supports – other non-profits or other service providers were able to implement different social distancing precautions. Initially they weren’t able to, so then we went back to what our normal levels are. With shelter, I would say the demand we’ve seen has increased. But we only have so many spots, and we’ve been able to spread people out, so we’re not decreasing the amount of people we have in our shelter each night, but we have had turn aways which is very unfortunate, and we wanna be able to provide shelter for everyone, but there’s only a certain number of spots. So that’s something different that we’re seeing for sure. 


Sydney: Have you seen a large philanthropic increase during the pandemic? 

Rachael: Yeah, we have, it’s quite incredible. I think we didn’t know what to expect with people being financially affected by COVID-19, with the instability and job loss. But we’ve really seen people be over and above compassionate. I think it’s likely when you’re feeling it and you know what it’s like to be afraid of getting sick or feeling the weight of being isolated, you can put yourself in a position where you can imagine what that’s like for someone else. So we’ve really seen people be really moved with generosity, to give and continue to help our efforts during COVID-19. Even so much as just businesses, like we had Rocky Mountain Chocolates and LUSH – I think that there were a few others – but just really businesses that wanted to bless us by giving us donations in kind. There were some restaurants that had to close down temporarily during COVID, and they were able to give us the extra perishable items that they had. We’ve just seen, again, that massive community coming together. We were really blown away, because we didn’t know what to expect. It’s amazing that we were able to have that surge in giving at the same time that we needed to step up to support our community. 

Sydney: What was the Union Gospel Mission’s role in the Community Coordinated Response Network?

Rachael: So just a bit of background – we participated in this group for networking and collaboration, to provide a community response to COVID and we were one of the founding members of the group. It started with a group of social enterprises that were looking to maintain some kind of business continuity during the pandemic, but then it evolved to more of a community wide opportunity to just check in, ensure best practices and determine what kind of support was best needed in the community. And so in this group there were some already pre-existing relationships and there were some that were new. That was really great to be able to continue to collaborate. We were participating in the SRO Food Distribution Network as well. We volunteered a staff member and our truck to shuttle meals from where the meals were being prepared to the distribution centre. Collaboration has been a large part of the work that goes on in the DTES already, but it often goes under the radar or is unrecognized. And so this new group, this new collaboration has kind of been recognized as this body within the community that’s making an impact during COVID and so it will continue until the risk is over and hopefully, perhaps beyond. But collaboration really helps UGM’s main mission of transforming lives, and we know we can’t do it alone. We’re just one piece of the puzzle. And so it’s really helpful for our guests, but also us to make sure we can continue working together, because we don’t have all the answers nor all the resources. We’re good at doing what we do, but we know other people are really good at doing what they do and to pick up their work better. We’re grateful for what has already happened, and our desire is that these relationships will continue and that we’ll see more change and transformation. 

I think that at UGM we’re just seeing that we want to continue. I think the pandemic has kind of opened people’s eyes on a more societal level to the need for housing, and the need for long-term support as we saw with homeless camps and people’s focus on people being outside and living homeless during a pandemic. We need to have our homes to social distance and self-isolate in, but someone who doesn’t have a home is at an increased risk. We’ve seen even offers of housing come in a big wave, and even this collaborative network between different communities, businesses, groups has all come together because of COVID.. So hopefully those things are gonna continue to transform and change moving forward.

Bill: Is there anything else that you want the wider public to know about the DTES community that you feel is important to know? 

Rachael: It’s really beautiful. I’m sure that as anyone who works in the DTES will tell you, it’s just a really vibrant community. People really care about each other, people really look out for each other. I think a lot of the time, especially in the DTES, people can kind of lump people into one category or maybe put some kind of division between like, this is my life and this is someone else’s life – but the more that i’ve gotten to know individuals in the community, the more that i’ve seen that community with other people. That people come from all different backgrounds, all different walks of life. We can find our own stories situated within that. So I think that’s a message about the DTES that I’d want everyone to know. Just take the time to get to know people.