Union Gospel Mission: Doing Important Work in the Downtown Eastside

Union Gospel Mission: Doing Important Work in the Downtown Eastside

By: Kelvin Claveria
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The Vancouver Downtown Eastside represents one of the biggest issues we’re facing today. And it’s not just an issue that’s of concern to British Columbians – it’s also Canada’s poorest area by postal code, which makes it an issue that all Canadians need to deal with.

In many ways, the downtown eastside has become synonymous with poverty and drugs. But this is a narrow view of the community. Because of the issues facing the downtown eastside (or perhaps in spite of them), activism and civic engagement has risen in this community.

One organization that is making such a difference in this community is the Union Gospel Mission. For over 70 years now, the organization has provided many essential services to the people in the downtown eastside community.

Last December, I had the privilege of meeting Swarna Debba, an SFU student who was doing a coop term at UGM. Swarna gave me a tour of the UGM building at East Cordova and gave me an insider’s view of how the organization works.

It’s More Than Just About Free Meals

UGM is known for providing meals to homeless people in the downtown eastside. The organization provides other services, however, and Swarna was happy to discuss these other programs.

“We also have a drug and alcohol addiction recovery program.  Basically, there are people living on site. They live here completely  – they eat, sleep, everything. They can go out 2 hours a day with a buddy, who will try to keep them honest,” she explains.

Swarna adds, “Studies show that the longer the program, the more likely you’ll stay clean. About three quarters of those who complete our six-month recovery program are clean and sober six months after they graduate, which is fantastic.”

This recovery program also adds pre and after-care, which are both important in the people’s road towards recovery.

UGM also provides specific programs for the women of the downtown eastside. Swarna explains that these women live on a residential area, in a building that isn’t recognizable as a UGM building.

“We have 9 women who live there for 3 months at a time, and they just work on getting clean.  And it’s a good place for them to be at because these women are usually running away from abusive relationships. It’s a good place for them to feel safe, “ she explains.


Volunteers are Needed

UGM is able to provide its services to the community because of the generosity of its donators, but also because of its volunteers. According to Swarna, over 5000 volunteers help the organization on a yearly basis.

But the organization could use more help. Here are some of the positions that volunteers can help with:

  • Thrift store – Cleaning , steaming, and pricing clothes
  • Street walk – Assisting kids to get to school
  • Women’s drop in – Assisting with different parts of the drop-in centre
  • Children programs – Working with children

The organization needs help throughout the year. Given the sensitivity of some of UGM’s programs, the organization does screen potential volunteers.

To explain the process, Swarna says: “You have to go to an orientation, which is held once a month. After the orientation, you apply, as if you’re applying for a job. Then you have to go through a interview, and finally a screening process. After that, you’re eligible to volunteer if everything’s okay. Once you’re accepted, you fill out a volunteer form.”

While this process might seem like a long one, Swarna emphasizes the benefits of volunteering for UGM. More than anything, the sense of fulfillment and involvement with your community are important benefits of getting involved with UGM.

Learn More About UGM

If you’d like to learn more about UGM, please visit the official website. You can also get updates about the organization via Twitter and Facebook. Interested volunteers can also get more info via the website.

The issues at downtown eastside will take many years and a significant effort to be fixed. The efforts of the many organizations helping in this community are important, and SFU students can do a lot to help.  Getting involved with UGM is a great way for many of us to contribute to a better Vancouver.

By Kelvin Claveria

Photo credit: UGM.ca

Posted on March 26, 2011