The Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society team includes (from left): Kaila Wong, Program Administrator; Preston Stimson, Interim Shelter Manager; and, Brian Francis, Shelter Manager.
COVID-19 rocked the world to its core, and with all the associated uncertainties there was only one absolute – that housing is the panacea for the pandemic. The virus also exacerbated the already egregious disparity within Indigenous housing across Canada. The world had no choice but to face the inequities that already existed within society, particularly housing issues, and Canada was unable to ignore the dispossession of Urban Indigenous Peoples any longer.
The 41 members of the Aboriginal Housing Management Association (AHMA) are each Indigenous housing and service providers, collectively serving over 5,000 Indigenous families BC. Dealing with the pandemic during the pre-existing housing crisis has been a marathon and sprint all at the same time. Finding solutions to aid our members as swiftly as possible, but that would also be successful in the long term, was no easy task. AHMA had the support of BC Housing throughout and received $1.8 million as an Emergency Response Fund. As of today, around $1.7 million in subsidies for COVID-19 response has been approved to cover PPE, extra staffing, danger pay for frontline workers, food for vulnerable tenants, IT support for management, increased security, and temporary shelters. Though we continue the battle against COVID-19, the Indigenous housing community has risen to this unpreceded occasion with resilience, compassion and innovation. Our members at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society (VAFCS) are an example of how our members have responded to the crisis with courage, kindness and cultural awareness.
“The pandemic has been a learning moment to serve our community,” said Kaila Wong, Program Administrator at VAFCS. “We had to learn to adapt all of our support programs that we offer, from food, finances and cultural support to housing. I’m proud of our staff for our response; during unsafe, uncertain times, we never stopped serving our community.”
VAFCS already has a shelter close to the Main Street Skytrain Station on 201 Central St., commonly referred to as “201.” Prior to COVID-19, even with 100 beds available, this shelter was almost always at full capacity. At 201 guests arrive after 3 p.m. and guests leave by 10 a.m. the following day. When the pandemic broke out, 201 had to drop its bed count down to 75 at a time when the need for more beds and shelter space was growing to accommodate selfdistance and self-isolation protocols.
VAFCS was selected by AHMA, BC Housing and the City of Vancouver to operate a temporary emergency shelter in response to the pandemic. The temporary shelter opened on June 2 after the Friendship Centre had transformed their gymnasium into a safe space for up to 45 guests. Kaila and her team kept guests in mind every step of the way to ensure a welcome space to isolate as well as a place to rest and belong to during such stressful and uncertain times.
The moment you walk into the Friendship Centre you can smell traditional Indigenous incense burning, a soothing traditional touch. Guests are pre-approved for the shelter, and there is a section partitioned off just for just women. Amenities include showers, laundry facilities, and two hot meals served daily; there is also strict attention to cleaning procedures. Guests can use all the facilities and don’t have to leave at any time. “This gave each guest a huge sense of relief, a home, a community to support them,” said Brian Francis, VAFCS Shelter Manager. “Some guests came and just slept, for 24 to 48 hours. That’s how tired they were. That’s how much they needed it.”
The team’s commitment to community continues with the creative approach to the challenges that have come with COVID-19. In addition to the shelter, VAFCS provides 1,200 meals weekly to their community with an additional 300 for Elders. Their outreach workers are still working diligently to connect members with resources, and they have virtual sessions for homework and language to aid the youth through this time.
VAFCS gives its Indigenous communities a place for everyone to belong to, whether through shelter, or supportive programs. Daye, 64, was a previous guest at the 201 shelter for three years. He began volunteering at the Friendship Centre once a week and progressively became more involved. Daye now works at the VAFCS and works the day shift at the temporary shelter. “I’ve been on both sides of the mat, and the thing that makes a difference here is the staff,” he said. “Because the staff really feel good helping out the guests and the guests pick up on that and then they feel good. It’s a continuous circle.” When asked about his experience at the shelter Daye says “lots of people look at staying at a shelter as a bad thing. But for me, it was a blessing. It gave me a place to rest and heal.”
VAFCS and each of AHMA’s 41 Indigenous housing and service providers have proven their expertise and dedication to Indigenous housing throughout COVID-19. They’re the ones on the front lines offering compassion and hard work to help their Indigenous communities get through the tough and sometimes scary days. Our members are working long days, solving complex problems, ensuring staff are protected and that our Indigenous peoples feel safe and supported. They’re our everyday heroes.