Delegates to the national assembly of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Edmonton discuss matters in a June 13 session.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Delegates to the national assembly of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Edmonton discuss Matters in a June 13 session.Delegates to the national assembly of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Edmonton discuss matters in a June 13 session.

June 23, 2014
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul will become a stronger advocate for the poor as well as continuing its longstanding charitable work of providing food, furniture and clothing to those in need.

"We are recognizing that the idea of giving to those living in poverty is a wonderful short-term solution, but it does not change the situation of those living in poverty," says Peter Ouellette, president of the Western Region of the society.

Peter Ouellette, Western president, says the Society of St. Vincent de Paul must strive to change the situation of those living in poverty.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Peter Ouellette, Western president, says the Society of St. Vincent de Paul must strive to change the situation of those living in poverty.

In an interview, Ouellette said the society wants to find out the causes of poverty and to use its influence to help change those conditions.

"So the terminology 'systemic change' is being used as the shift from handing something out to someone to giving them a hand up."

Society of St. Vincent de Paul's members from across Canada spent several days in Edmonton strategizing how to best serve those in need.

More than 260 national delegates, including 145 from Edmonton, attended the society's 43rd annual general assembly at Grant MacEwan University June 11-15. Throughout the five-day assembly delegates attended educational workshops and participated in a plenary on systemic change.

In his keynote speech to the assembly, Bob McKeon, director of the office of social justice in the Edmonton Archdiocese, said public advocacy is essential.

Politicians must be convinced that "there is broad public support for using government funds to address the structural causes of homelessness and poverty," he said.

McKeon pointed to a series of government and community initiatives across Canada to reduce poverty and homelessness, including Edmonton's and Alberta's 10-year plans to eliminate homelessness.

"Rather than simply seeking to alleviate some of the immediate consequences and effects of poverty, these initiatives seek to address the structural causes of poverty and homelessness on a systematic, long-term basis," he said.

In all these initiatives, faith communities have been active participants, he noted.

Catholic social teaching speaks of the importance of both charity and justice, McKeon stressed. "This means responding generously to those in immediate need, but also addressing the unjust social structures and working toward social change."

Clearly, the answer toward reducing poverty and homelessness is not simply more funding and food supplies, McKeon told delegates.

"It is also a commitment across all sectors to address root causes by working with aboriginal peoples to address generations of colonization, marginalization, under-funded education, prejudice, racism and the legacy of residential schools."

Ouellette said the SSVP is convinced that advocacy is essential. He noted the society has a national group charged with advocating for change for those living in poverty.

"We are now moving into a charity that is looking at solutions to problems. And part of the solution to problems involves advocacy for the poor and lobbying to assure that changes in government do not deteriorate that sector of the population that is living in poverty."

SLOW SHIFT

This shift has been taking place slowly over the past year as the SSVP came to the realization that "we don't have endless amount of resources to be able to continue to provide for those living in poverty," Ouellette said.

Bob McKeon

Bob McKeon

"So it's not a matter of continually providing for those people; it's a matter of helping them to get out of their particular situation and to recognize that every situation is different."

Some of the society's clients may include individuals that have difficulty managing their money and home. As a result they go to the cash store for loans and get into a debt spiral that's difficult to get out of.

"We have initiatives going so they do not have to go into that debt spiral and we will help them to identify in a systemic way how they can change things," Ouellette explained.

The society's objective is not to push the government but help people access government resources, he said. "So often there is a step that is missing between those living in poverty and access to government assistance."

Each time a family calls for help, two members of SSVP visit their home and evaluate the family's needs.

"We are so much more involved in the grassroots with those people. If government offers a solution then we will bring government in but we are ahead of the government in actually seeing and feeling the poverty that exists in that home."

GOVERNMENT CUTS

However, if the society sees that government is cutting programs that benefit the poor, "we are going to get involved," Ouellette stressed.

"We are always going to get involved if they are doing something that goes against what has been a base level of support to those living in poverty. We will always be against it and we will always put our position forward to argue it."

The society, nevertheless, will continue to help those that need basic items such as food, money, kitchen items and furniture. "We will always be there to transfer these acts of charity over to those people who need that help."

At the assembly, Ouellette presented a draft five-year plan that he and other members of the national executive have been working on.

"It is fair to say that over the last several years the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has grown significantly and has broadened its activities," he explained.

"What the strategic plan will do is allow us to have more focus on those things that we can make a significant contribution to. So the five-year plan is an opportunity to focus and to increase our efficiency of providing."