Real Meaning of Christmas

The hot topic in Vancouver is homelessness. Barely a day goes by without reference to the issue in the city’s news media. This is particularly so in the lead-up to Christmas which has seen the city’s heaviest snowfalls in 40 years accompanied by a prolonged cold snap with sub zero temperatures. BC is said to be the homeless capital of Canada. Hardly surprising considering the milder temperatures here which attract a general movement of people from east to west. Homeless people obviously can’t survive on the streets in temperatures ranging from -20 to -60.

This last week I’ve been made keenly aware of the plight of these people with sub zero temperatures ranging from -1 to -20 (wind chill factored in). My hands were so cold in the early morning waiting for the bus that I had to give up reading this metro newspaper and put my hands in my coat pocket. Last week while waiting for the bus after my nightshift my face and body ached in the wind-chill. I had to take refuge in a local store at the risk of missing the bus!

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Not surprising then that the newly inaugurated mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson, ran on the issue of homelessness and has pledged to end this blight once and for all by 2015. To tackle the problem he’s formed a Homeless Emergency Action Team (HEAT) and given the team 3 months to get the estimated 1000 homeless of the streets. This will hopefully prevent further deaths – dozens have died in the winter cold over the past 3 years according to some sources. Step 2 will be to provide permanent low cost housing which for mayor Robertson represents the long term solution.

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As Christmas approaches the church has become a centerpiece in the HEAT strategy, a plan involving city, church and state. All three have contributed $10,000. The city provides the land and buildings, the province provides the operational side of the shelters while the church acts as the bridge, opening its doors to get people off the streets now.

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Reverend Rick Matthews is the pastor of First United Church located in Vancouver’s notorious “Downtown Eastside”. He’s opened the church doors to the city’s homeless enabling 150 people to take refuge each night. According to Rev Matthews in this front page piece in The Province the issues are mental illness and addiction. The core problem he says is “alienation from family, community, from the self”.

For Rev Matthews the long term solution lies in community. While cash donations are always needed the church is seeking volunteers to connect with the Downtown Eastside community. “The best way to meet the needs of the marginalised is to be a community without margins” he says. With Christmas approaching he says he is aware its true meaning and how that reflects on his mission: “The setting of a stable and the powerlessless of a baby, people can feel that”. There is always room at the Inn.

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