Homeless treated as neighbours at south side centre

Kris Knutson and Paula Cornell are full time staff at the south side Neighbour Centre.

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

Kris Knutson and Paula Cornell are full time staff at the south side Neighbour Centre.

February 17, 2014
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

The life of being homeless and on the street is tough. But the Neighbour Centre is one faith-based response for people who often have nowhere to turn.

"The reality is quite tough," says Kris Knutson, executive director of the year-old agency on Edmonton's south side. "We have some extremely resilient people. The things that they deal with on a day-to-day basis would be paralyzing for most of us."

There was the alcoholic man who woke up one morning last winter with his hair frozen into a puddle in a schoolyard near the centre. The Neighbour Centre got him showered, warmed him up with blankets and helped him locate housing within a couple of days.

The man got into detox, is now sober and is dealing with the issues in his life, said Knutson. "It's a miracle he made it."

The roots of the Neighbour Centre go back roughly 15 years. Churches in the Old Strathcona area near Whyte Avenue saw growing amounts of homelessness and street poverty.

They set up a Wednesday soup night at Strathcona Baptist Church. Then, in the winter of 2004-05, they set up the Come Out of the Cold program with city funding which enabled the homeless to sleep overnight in church basements and gyms.

As well, said Pastor Pam Reichenbach, associate pastor at Strathcona Baptist, there was community resistance. "There was a big outcry from people in the community who were not wanting an overnight shelter in our area."

Many others, however, wanted the churches to serve the poor, Reichenbach said. "That sparked a resolution to move forward and start something long term and sustainable here on the south side of the city."

Other ideas were tried, but they didn't come together.

Running such a program with volunteers became too intense and funding dried up.

"So we continued to pray," she said. "We felt God was calling us to provide resources here in south Edmonton."

There was a need for a shelter to help the homeless and people-at-risk, she said. There was also a desire to unite the area churches with a common mission.

In 2009, they incorporated the Edmonton Do Likewise Society, based on Jesus' words after telling the parable of the Good Samaritan – "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10.37).

"After that, we were just overwhelmed at the way God was opening doors for us and leading us and providing what we needed," Reichenbach said.

NO BACKLASH

It took a while to find a place in Old Strathcona where the rent was cheap and where the homeless were welcome. Eventually, they rented a former restaurant at 7221-104 St. and opened their doors in November 2012.

It was a good site – far from elementary schools and not in the middle of a residential area, she said. Because they had built ties with community leagues, the police, the business association, churches and other groups, there was no backlash when the centre opened.

Now, the Neighbour Centre runs an array of programs centred around its seven-day-a-week evening drop-in and a Monday-to-Thursday morning drop-in. The "neighbours" who visit the centre can warm up, get a shower, find emergency clothing or a meal, access a computer or find help in getting housing. People who want to sleep at an inner city shelter can catch a ride from the Neighbour Centre.

There is even a foot care program run by volunteer nurses.

The nurses tend to cuts, bruises and foot infections suffered by the homeless. But as their feet receive attention, the homeless people often relax and open up to the nurses. "They may share some things they haven't shared before," Knutson said.

As for the nurses, "They find it a real honour to hear these stories that people feel trusting enough to share."

The bright, welcoming centre even has its own piano. Program manager Paula Cornell is hoping to launch an afternoon music program at which the neighbours can learn to play an instrument or just borrow a guitar or other instrument.

CLEANER NEIGHBOURHOOD

Then there is the Old Strathcona Clean program in which three formerly homeless men were hired to keep the Whyte Avenue area free of rubbish. That's helped develop good relations with area businesses.

One of the workers has been changed by having a job, taking pride in his work and seeing that he can make a contribution, Knutson said. "When people are encouraged and their gifts recognized, it's amazing to see the transformation."

Most of Edmonton's homeless population congregates in the inner city and downtown area north of the North Saskatchewan River. But many do not like the large crowds and possibility of violence in the city centre "and don't want to be part of that scene."

So they live in the river valley or Mill Creek and gather in Old Strathcona.

"The homeless were here before we showed up," he said. "The homeless have been on the south side for a long time."

Slowly, the Neighbour Centre is becoming better known both to the businesses and to the homeless people themselves. The numbers have grown with 1,500 people dropping in during December.

"We have a lot of regulars who come here on a daily basis."

People had to come to know and trust the agency, Knutson said. The numbers have been helped by the bottle depot near the centre. The "bottle pickers" have found the centre to be to their liking.

More than half of the "neighbours" are aboriginal and many suffer from mental health issues and addictions. "That really makes it tough for them to move ahead in life.

FOCUSED ON SURVIVAL

"A lot of them live life in 12-hour increments. It's all about survival and meeting immediate needs."

For those who live in rooming houses or in the valley, "isolation is a big issue in their lives," he said. The centre tries to get them the spiritual and social help they need to move forward. "Isolation is a type of poverty too."

While the Neighbour Centre is avowedly Christian, everyone is welcome and no one gets religion thrust at them. Visitors come with various sexual orientations and religious affiliations. No one is turned away.

But if someone is looking for faith resources – be they Christian or aboriginal spirituality – the centre will help them find those resources.

Cornell sees many people who have been hurt by the Church. "Our primary goal is to show people that God created them with value – but to show them that, rather than tell them."

Reichenbach says the centre is only about neighbours helping neighbours.

"We're not only helping neighbours who are at risk. They are also helping us who have all kinds of our own addictions around control and safety and security.

"We really see ourselves as one community, each of us with our own issues who need the chance to grow together."