After years of proudly being one of Calgary’s “Community Inns” — temporary emergency shelters for the homeless — Grace Presbyterian Church is asking how else it might contribute to addressing issues of poverty and homelessness in the city.
“We have many people here who are passionate and concerned about homelessness in the city and just what’s happening in general across Canada, especially with the economic times,” the Rev. Leslie Walker says. “We’re trying to figure out how to direct those energies.”
Calgary’s Community Inns were started in the bitterly cold winter of 1996/1997. Volunteers from several churches gathered to ask what they might do to support those without homes particularly in inclement weather — and Inn from the Cold was born.
The non-profit organization engages faith groups and other community associations with facilities to be temporary shelters for Calgary’s homeless. The Community Inns operate on a rotating basis, 365 days a year, and are located in communities across Calgary.
More than 70 volunteers — not all from Grace — are involved with hosting the shelter twice a month at Grace. All of them have joined because they know they are making a difference in people’s lives in the most basic of ways, one congregant says.
There are many beautiful stories of people eagerly contributing their gifts and resources to support those who take shelter at the Inn. One volunteer shared her volunteer experience with a friend. This friend then proceeded to knit about 30 toques for the Inn guests.
Two of the regular volunteers were once homeless themselves. Both are involved because they want to give back.
One family, three generations of volunteers, has taken it upon themselves to purchase over $1,000 worth of new clothing and other items for Inn guests.
One of the beauties of the church hosting the shelter is that as those who volunteer and those who visit the Inn come face to face, they start to discover a common ground, another congregant says.
Grace is now seeking to broaden its activities to address homelessness and poverty in part because of concerns about its future capacity to manage the intensive work required to operate a temporary shelter, especially as its congregation ages. It also sees it could potentially play an effective role in addressing issues of poverty and homelessness in other ways, such as advocacy.
The church’s social justice committee has been investigating the possibilities around these other kinds of engagements. It has been looking to get a “lay of the land” in terms of what’s already happening in Calgary. One of the issues cropping up is that of secondary suites and Calgary’s lack of a policy around them. The question is whether the church might play a role in advocating on this issue.
As part of the church’s current inquiry, a number of congregants gleaned valuable insights from the University of Calgary’s Chair of Christian Thought Panel on Addressing Poverty in Calgary, held Feb. 2.
The panel included former executive director of the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative, Derek Cook, Vibrant Communities Calgary community facilitator Darrell Howard and Jeff Loomis, executive director of Momentum, Community Economic Development Society.
Both Leslie and several Grace congregants were struck by insights from the panel that addressing poverty and homelessness is both a matter of focusing on nurturing caring human relationships and building or improving supports such as public, affordable childcare and access to financial literacy training.
“In our society, systems and structures replace genuine human compassion,” one congregant says. “We need to restore the wholeness of community by including those who are excluded. . . It’s all about the relationships we develop.”
“We are all interconnected and need to understand that poverty affects everyone, the rich and prospering as well as those on the margins, the poor and homeless,” Leslie says.
“We would do well as a society to ask, how are we including those with the least power in our decisions. There is no us and them, there are no distinctions, there is only ‘we’.”
The panel also highlighted the systemic barriers that can contribute to poverty, including racism, classism, ableism, ageism, and homophobia. “Those with power and influence need to be advocates for those who face discrimination,” Leslie says. “Advocacy is a powerful tool in removing barriers that cause poverty.”
Other Calgary churches are also asking what else they might do to address homelessness and poverty in their city.
Some are investigating the possibility of becoming community hubs, as defined by the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative Enough for All strategy.
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