West Van's firefighters are second to none, the first on the scene when our families, our homes and everything we have are at risk of being swallowed up by the darkest turns of fate. It takes an uncommon person to make a profession out of putting everything he or she is on the line to pull us out of harms way. The fact that people choose this profession is something of a miracle. But it is in the nature of a miracle to pull us up short, to make sure if only for a moment we see the uncommon power of it, to push aside any drift to ingratitude with a sense of wonder.
This is the feeling we had this morning, under a bright early winter sun on Dundarave Beach, when an army of firefighters arrived to help us plant a forest of Christmas trees. In our family, we say eagles are like angels: there are always more around than you can see. Same goes for firefighters. We were told to expect four, but two firetrucks hauled their gleaming red mass to the beach and in a heartbeat we were surrounded by the men and women of the WVFD. Mario Russell, the exclusive provider of trees for the Festival from his -- unrivaled for the excellence of its trees -- Valley View Tree Farm, had just delivered a record number of trees for the Dundarave Festival. In less than half the time it took us in previous seasons, the Firefighters raised them into a forest working side by side with Venturer Scouts, students from St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School, École Pauline Johnson, and the Knights of Columbus. The work went swiftly because of the loving attention Chris and his crews from Great Canadian Landscaping had brought to the site the morning before, prepping the holes in a biting rain. It went swiftly because of the support the Festival's received from West Van's municipal staff. And it was finished in a twinkling because of our firefighters.
These trees, in the words of the Lookout Society's eminent executive director, Karen O'Shannacery, have a "miraculous effect" on the lives of the most vulnerable people in our community. The need was unmistakable even this morning, as we arrived to find evidence that someone had passed the sub zero night sleeping under the great Alder tree at Dundarave Beach. We can measure the miracle in the $75,000 the trees have raised through three Christmases for the North Shore Shelter, and the signs that we're on our way to adding to this total. But the more reliable measure of this "miraculousness" is the way the trees make visible something that could pass without notice, the way the pull us up short and call us to a sense of wonder against the numbing ingratitude of ordinary time. They forced into plain sight our friendship, a deeper understanding of the fact that the only way we can be human is to be human together -- with each other and for each other. Putting this forest in place this morning allowed us to see -- against the evils that can happen to us without warning -- that it is a beautiful thing to be human.
The 20th Anniversary of the Dundarave Festival of Lights began auspiciously, with a host of firefighters planting a forest of miracles on Dundarave Beach. Its in our hands now to answer this with generous, open and beautiful humanity.
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 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.