WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Edmonton religious leaders have pledged their faith communities to play a leading role in their quest to end homelessness in the city.
EDMONTON — Just over two years ago, Brian (who didn't want his last name to be used) got his own home through the city's Rapid Exit Program. But the formerly homeless man said he would have to return to living in the river valley if it wasn't for the support of his church.
Brian, 60, maintains that giving a homeless person a home is not enough. "When I got housed in my home, I didn't know how to go into the community. I didn't know how to talk to people. I didn't know how to make friends. I didn't know how to be a neighbour."
Fortunately his community support worker took Brian to her church and he has been going there ever since. "I have a very nice family there that supports me in every way," he says.
Providing that kind of support for the newly housed is the idea behind the new Welcome Home program launched by Edmonton's faith communities at Zeidler Hall in the Citadel Theatre March 17.
Led by Archbishop Richard Smith, leaders from 22 traditions, including Christian churches, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist and aboriginal groups, signed a document that affirmed their support for Edmonton's 10-year-plan to end homelessness.
The Welcome Home program will pair volunteers with newly-housed individuals or families who will show them around the neighbourhood, offer companionship and make them feel part of the community.
Homeless people face serious challenges after leaving life on the streets, said Anne Smith, chair of Edmonton's Homeless Commission.
"For much of the time, you are alone in that new home; your friends are on the streets. They may not have been good for you but they were your friends," she said.
"Now you are in an apartment and you are looking at four or five walls and contemplating the new life ahead of you. You are looking for companionship, a sense of belonging to that new community.
"That's where all of us can come in."
Rabbi David Kunin, president of the Interfaith Centre, noted the Welcome Home initiative began when Archbishop Smith called a group of interfaith leaders together a year ago.
The archbishop "challenged us to think how we as faith leaders could take the words that we speak as part of our religious traditions and turn them into action," Kunin said. He asked the leaders to help meet Mayor Stephen Mandel's goal of ending homelessness in the city within 10 years.
The real challenge, Kunin said, is to open our doors in hospitality to those who are disadvantaged.
"As long as there are homeless and hungry, none us are truly free. Signing these documents is a great thing but it's only a first step," the rabbi continued. "These are beautiful words but they are only words unless we take action and make them a reality."
Rabbi David Kunin
The religious leaders will now ask their faith groups what they will do to ensure the homeless feel part of the community, he said.
Organizers are sorting out how the Welcome Home program will work but volunteer recruiting will start soon so the program can begin operating in about three months.
So far more than 1,300 homeless Edmontonians have been housed in the past two years by groups working on the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness.
In an interview, Smith said providing spaces for homeless people to live is the first step.
"But if at the same time we are not providing the homeless newly housed with a sense of belonging, of community, of being known by the neighbourhood, being affirmed and really honoured as integral parts of society, then this ultimately cannot succeed and as the speaker (Brian) said, there is a risk of them returning to what they knew before," he said.
The archbishop noted that in the Congregational Action Guide there are 11 things that people can do to support the housing initiative.
"The key, though, will be this Welcome Home program," he said.
"What we will do is we will set up one contact point whereby faith communities, their volunteers, could link in with the system and say, 'Okay, here are some people that could use some volunteer support.' Then this Welcome Home initiative can help parcel all that out and funnel it."
After a local housing initiative was set up in St. Alphonsus Parish, the parish came together and took several steps to welcome the new residents, Smith noted.
In the meantime the archdiocese will, through the Office of Social Justice, insert the Congregational Action Guide into the parishes "and see how we can work together," he said.
Brian came from Toronto a few years ago. "I'm an orphan. I grew up on the streets of Toronto. I was raised in foster homes, in orphanages, reform schools, prevention jails and finally penitentiaries. It was a vicious, vicious circle," he said.
"I would get out of jail and I would go right back. I spent most of my life inside."
He moved to Edmonton to work but then got sick, ran out of money and ended up living in the river valley. He has lived in a west end apartment for more than two years, thanks to financial and moral support from Laurier Heights Baptist Church.
"I have a really nice support system; otherwise I would have had to return to the river valley," he said. "It's so nice to have that backup."