With thousands of people across Vancouver without a home to go to on Christmas Day, charities are stepping up to serve plates of kindness and hope.
At the Salvation Army Harbour Light in the Downtown Eastside, 1,500 guests stopped in for a free Christmas meal and a day of community.
“We’re cooking over 100 turkeys, 600 litres of potatoes, 150 litres of gravy, 120 pies all cut up,” executive director Jim Coggles said. “We have over 100 volunteers working a number of different shifts, from opening to wrap-up.
“It’s a big day. We get to serve people at the table and return some hope and dignity to people who would otherwise have a not-so-special Christmas Day.”
Like other charitable Christmas dinners held throughout Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, the Harbour Light event helps lift up not just the homeless and unemployed, but those who are struggling to make ends meet with what little they do have.
“We have folks that we have known in the community for many years, living in very difficult circumstances,” he said. “If they’re lucky, they have a paycheque to go paycheque-to-paycheque, but in many cases people are on a fixed income or no income.
“This may very well be the only Christmas dinner they’ll receive, so it’s just a great opportunity to connect with friends and to show people that they matter and that we care.”
Inside the food hall, volunteers clad in Santa hats and Christmas lights said they were happy to spend their holiday ensuring everyone gets a warm meal.
“I’ve definitely been on the other side, and I know what it’s like, so it’s really important for us to give back and to take care of other people,” kitchen manager Terence Maxie said.
“Everyone goes through things. Some of us are able to deal with it on our own, and some of us need assistance. We help people here, whether it’s with addictions or coming out of corrections.
“I’m very grateful for this place.”
Mother-daughter volunteers Charlene Andrew and Courteney Schulz have been helping out at Harbour Light for years together.
“We first started when Courteney was eight years old,” Andrew said. “They allowed her, with her too-big plastic gloves, to hand out chocolate to all the people who came, and it was wonderful. She had a great time.”
Schulz, now 24, remembers telling her mom they should make it a tradition. Ever since, they say the family looks forward to it every year.
“I remember watching my mom interact with a man who was having a tough time, and she was talking him through it,” she said. “I think just starting those dialogues is really important.”
With homelessness hitting record levels in Vancouver — 2,223 according to the latest count, marking the highest number since the survey began in 2002 — and a quarter of a million Canadians facing homelessness at some point in 2019, advocates say the need has never been greater.
“What that means in human terms is that young mothers come to us in tears because they can’t provide for their families,” United Gospel Mission spokesperson Jeremy Hunka said.
“People coming to our homeless shelter walk in the door and can’t believe that they’re here over the Christmas holidays when they never thought they’d be anywhere close to being homeless or asking for help.
“It’s really hard for people; it’s devastating.”
Hunka says young mothers in particular are hit hardest by the ever-increasing cost of living in Metro Vancouver, pushing more of them towards the poverty line.
While the need has gone up, recent studies have shown charitable giving has gone down in recent years.
According to a Fraser Institute report, Canadians donated 0.54 per cent of their taxable income in 2017. That’s nearly three times less than taxpayers in the U.S., who donated an average of 1.25 per cent.
The Salvation Army itself recently said donations to its annual Christmas Kettle Campaign are down by 76 per cent for 2019. The campaign proceeds provide up to 70 per cent of the charity’s funding for the rest of the year.
Maxie says it’s imperative for people to take time out of their busy lives — particularly around the holiday season — to lend a hand or open their wallets.
“They say it’s the more we give, the more that we can get in life, right?” he said.