Mission closure draws fire in Downtown Eastside

Workers, residents report anger in food lineups

Charity workers and residents in the Downtown Eastside say they have noticed a breach in food distribution and anger on food lines following the closure earlier this month of a Catholic charitable mission which gave out food and clothes to the mentally ill, addicted and the poor in the area.

Sharon McFadyen, co-chair of Urban Core, a Downtown Eastside planning committee representing 50 charities helping the estimated 7,000 poor residents in the neighbourhood, believes the closure of a mission run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement put a large hole in the areas coordinated food program.

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Any time people are hungry theyre going to go into survival mode, fight or flight, she said. Routines of many mentally ill people have been disrupted.

Robert Weppler, employed at a service agency next door to the mission, reported in an Aug. 30 interview that workers at the Living Room Drop-In centre for the mentally ill were turning back food requests from the hungry because of the mission closure. Staff there told me that food requests have quadrupled since the closure.

Vicki Joss, a senior mental health worker at the Living Room centre, confirmed staff have said no to requests for food because the centre only has food for mental health clients. Joss has heard reports from staff that the mission closure has put pressure on the service and she is not surprised by reports of increasing tension in food lines at other food outlets.

Jose Rosales, an activity leader at Oppenheimer Park for the past three years, said in an Aug. 30 interview that staff at food services at Union Gospel Mission and Harbour Lights speak of long lineups, increasing tension and fist fights.

People are hungry, said Rosales. They come hoping to find food and they dont find food.

Resident Thomas Redknap, sitting in a wheelchair in Oppenheimer Park Aug. 28 alongside three other men, said fights are erupting in the lines for food.

I can hear the screaming, he said.

The other men, who would not give their names, agreed. The skinny is that you start an hour earlier, said a man sitting nearby. Because many are turned away.

A Vancouver City Police beat officer assigned to the Downtown Eastside said he was disturbed by the tension in a local food line up he had witnessed earlier in the week. I walked by the UGM the other day and it was crazy, said the officer in an Aug. 28 interview in the park. He did not give his name. A call to the Vancouver Police Department communications office about the lineups was not returned.

Union Gospel Mission outreach worker Jeff MacDonald reported that its food lines had become hostile. Absolutelytheyre angry, said MacDonald. Theyre frustrated. Theyre hungry.

But UGM public relations officer J. Stewart said in an email to the Courier that while food lineups are longer, they are not disorderly or filled with tension.

The Archdiocese of Vancouver says the food distribution of the mission has been taken up by another Catholic charity next door.

Since the sisters' service ended, the Door is Open soup kitchen next door has accommodated the hungry, said Paul Schratz, the communications director for the archdiocese. "We're happy the immediate needs are being taken care of and nobody is being overlooked."

The Door is Open staff member Frances Cabahug said in an Aug. 30 interview that the centre, which complemented the Sisters afternoon meal with a noon lunch, has not expanded its service. Cabahug said there is talk of future expansion but for now The Door is Open, operating with two faulty stoves and less than half the staff of the Sisters' service, is carrying on with no significant change since the mission closure. No afternoon meal has been added, with afternoon offerings limited to pastries and coffee.

City of Vancouver homeless outreach worker Judy Graves fears some of those turned away from other food servicesat capacity before the mission closedwill dine on castoff donuts and the like, instead of the home-made soup and sandwiches provided by the Franciscans.

Control of the mission transferred from the New York- based Franciscans to the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver last year after the aging order of nuns found it no longer had the personnel resources to carry on.

In an Aug. 26 story in the B.C. Catholic, the archdiocese newspaper, Schratz is quoted as saying, "Nothing has been cancelled. In the wake of the sisters' departure this month, there's wonderful stuff happening."

Asked in an interview with the Courier to detail his comments in the B.C. Catholic, Schratz said he had no specific information and suggested the planning was underway in the Catholic Charities offices.

News reports of the service closure have almost exclusively focused on the departure of the heroic Franciscan order with little or no comment on the loss of a service feeding 500 people a day. Of the patchwork array of agencies serving an estimated 7,000 people living in poverty in the Downtown Eastside, five organizations provide the backbone of free food services; the expired Catholic mission, Salvation Army Harbour Lights, the Union Gospel Mission, First United Church and the Carnegie Centre. The Franciscan missions services stood out for nutritional food value and take-out brand of service accessible to the hundreds of homeless with anxiety disorders, says Graves.

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Clarification: A quote in an Aug. 23 Courier story that the mission was the sole provider of on-thespot free clothes in the area was incorrect. At least three area agencies provide a comparable service. The same story identified Rob Mascitti as an administrator when in fact he is the executive assistant to the Archbishop.

bteeter@shaw.ca

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