It's one thing to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, quite another to have hearts as beautiful as the place we call home.
You could see the radiant heart of our community on Saturday at the Dundarave Christmas Fair. In the middle of a rain storm (that's what the season looks like in our corner of the North Pacific), hundreds of people were jammed into the Festival Longhouse by the time Mayor Mike Smith took the stage. The Mayor called attention to the fact of homelessness in our community, and how it is entirely within our capabilities to make sure no one is left out in the cold.
The proof of his claim was lined up, over a hundred voices strong, behind him. By themselves, the North Shore's Burstin with Broadway choir has raised over $2,100 for the Lookout Emergency Aid Society's North Shore Shelter. Each tree in the Dundarave Festival has its own pledge page, a "cyber tree". Burstin With Broadway has shown its vibrancy and life as a community by lighting up its "cyber tree" a roman candle. This community has by itself brought in 10% of charitable donations to the North Shore Shelter this season. Without singing single bar of a Christmas song — they only do Broadway, it's show tunes all the time — this choir exemplifies the true spirit of Christmas
Borrowing from La Cages aux Folles, the choir affirms "We are what we are, and what we are needs no explaining". It became clear to everyone on Saturday that this includes having hearts as bold and vast as the North Pacific.
Mayor Smith lead us in the magic words that lit up the Festival's 100 Christmas trees, its "forest of miracles"; the gilded youth of the West Van Youth Band lit up the night with brilliant fanfare.
When they ended their set, the Lookout Emergency Aid Society's Executive Director, Karen O'Shannacery, OBC took the mic. She told us the story of a phone call she'd received earlier in the week from a West Vancouver resident, the descendant of a number of generations of West Vancouverites.
"Sally" had lost her home and her children due to her husband's violence. The violence had also triggered a profound anxiety disorder. She was en route to yield to her suffering by taking her own life, when she stopped in at the North Shore Shelter.
"Do you have a better plan for me?" she asked.
The answer they were able to give her was powered by the Festival's Christmas trees. These trees have raised over $100,000, thanks to the generosity of tree sponsors like Burstin With Broadway. The Lookout Society has used this money to fund its transitional support program. While the federal and provincial governments give money to the Shelter for emergency assistance, rescuing people from our beaches, ravines and streets, they provide no funding to allow these most vulnerable members of our community to get back on their feet. The Festival's Christmas trees do this.
Karen told us the Shelter was able to place "Sally" in its transitional support program, where she received the loving, professional support to heal and return to herself. She had phoned Karen to say that her children had been returned to her, that she had built a new career, and secured a new home of her own. "Sally", like Burstin With Broadway, shines with a heart as big and bold as the North Pacific.
From Mayor Smith's courage and candour in naming the truth of homelessness, to this choir and one woman's astounding strength, we saw the beauty of our community at the Dundarave Christmas Fair.
Photo credit David McNeary, Creative Commons.
This week the rains of winter found us, a foretaste of a season that forecasters believe will be one of the bitterest winters we've seen in some time. The rain is falling in liquid shards; two more days of this and we'll see an early cold weather alert, which means people who are toughing it out right now in our parks and beaches, on our streets and under doorways will have somewhat greater access to shelter.
The rain drives home the reality of the BC Auditor General's observation that, in 2007, the cost of providing police, ambulance, emergency hospitalization and court-related resources to contend with the human impact of homelessness cost BC taxpayers $55,000 per homeless person per year. The Auditor General compares this to the $37,000 it would cost to provide the same person with stable and supportive housing, as part of a considerable volume of evidence to support his conclusion that "the government does not have a comprehensive plan for addressing homelessness."
Much has changed since since the Auditor General's 2009 report Homelessness: Clear Focus Needed. Today, there are 1,215 seniors at immediate risk of homelessness on the North Shore. The Lookout Society's eminent executive director, Karen O'Shannecery, advises us last year saw a 5% increase in the number of seniors turning to homelessness shelters and she projects this will grow to 10% within a year. This trend is likely to increase as the percentage of seniors in our community rises. At the same time, there's been a 38% increase in the numbers of youth 25 and under who have become homeless in our community since 2008.
Faced with this reality, there are a number of practical and immediate steps all of us can take to end homelessness in our community. In fact, we believe this can be done beautifully. Here are two things we can do right away:
First, let Christmas start today for everyone on the North Shore who's at risk of homelessness. Sponsor a Festival tree for your family, your business, community or place of worship and let it be a meaningful beacon of hope: put your tree to work now in raising the charitable donations essential for the ongoing work of the North Shore Shelter.
Second, use this blog, the four Saturdays of the Festival's fabulous and free concerts and any other moment you can find for open and frank conversations about the reality of homelessness and housing insecurity in our community. These conversations could be challenging.
The reason we have a shelter for homeless adults on the North Shore stems from a particularly painful conversation. She was a lady in every respect, living in a home of her own in the British Properties and well into her eighties when her neighbours found her. Her husband had died some years before, and she found his Canada Pension was not sufficient to pay her property taxes and support her. So she used that money to pay the tax, with a small amount left over to keep up appearances by paying a gardener to come in once a month and mow the lawn. Inside her home, she shut down all of the rooms and lived only in the nanny's quarters to save on utility costs. She did not fill her prescriptions. She ate cat food. Her neighbours looked in on her when they saw the junk mail piling up at her letterbox, found her in a coma and saw her admitted to Lionsgate Hospital. She had no family in Canada, and so the hospital contacted the Lookout Emergency Aid Society's offices in the Downtown Eastside, because at the time there were no shelters on the North Shore. It was the experience of an elderly West Vancouver lady with the brutality of housing insecurity and, eventually, homelessness, that set in train the creation of our own North Shore Shelter.
Honour her by allowing your own Festival tree to shine in our forest of Christmas trees on Dundarave Beach. Answer her loneliness by helping us to create frank and loving conversations about how to make sure the people who built out community, and the people who are the future of our community, can always make their home among us.
The winter here, to borrow from our neighbour Sarah McLachlan, is cold and bitter; it chills us to the bone. Last night the first snow fell, but the thrill it gave us flowed largely from the fact that we had warm beds waiting. Snow means something else entirely if you're sleeping in a ravine, or if you're a senior and can't afford to keep the heat on. The arrival of this cold, bitter season means the North Shore Shelter, and shelters throughout the region, will have to lay out emergency beds to keep the bodies and souls together.
This afternoon we set a forest of Christmas trees into Dundarave Beach as a witness to hope, with each tree providing a powerful answer to the loneliness and desperation of a life without a home. The trees allow us to take sides. Great Canadian Landscaping prepped the beach for us this week, lovingly as only master gardeners can. Mario Russell lead two trailer loads of trees from his Valley View Farm that were even more magnificent than the forest he produced for us last Christmas. And a legion of friends, old and new, including students from Sentinel and St. Thomas Aquinas, homemakers, graphic artists, kids, lawyers, firefighters and the ever-reliable Knights of Columbus, set the trees in their rightful places on this spectacular beach. Without decoration, standing dark and verdant, they are a witness to the best hope we can have for our community -- especially the people in our community without secure homes of their own. The trees make a statement of solidarity, they affirm the beauty of the bonds that hold us together in our common humanity. And when they are decorated, hung with strands of LED lights, they shine with the fierce spirit of our community -- a love for this place, a love for each other that the bitter cold and darkness cannot overcome.
So a word of welcome to everyone who walks through the forest of Christmas trees as it stands now, row upon row of trees standing in expectation of the bright day of love and friendship that's coming to all of us and especially, because this is Christmas, to the people who most need to see the arrival of that bright day.
The Dundarave Festival Society
We are a circle of friends working in the Dundarave Festival of Lights Society to bring to life the promise of Christmas in our community, a season of life, passion and purpose that leaves no one in the cold. This is community-driven social change, in the true spirit of Christmas and the best spirit of our community.