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Abbotsford Connect feeds and supports the vulnerable

Pancakes, sausages, and scrambled eggs may not seem like much – but for the people attending the Abbotsford Connect event, it meant everything.

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Images: Blake McGuire

By Katherine Gibson and Valerie Franklin (The Cascade/Contributor) – Email

Print Edition: October 23, 2013

Images: Blake McGuire

Pancakes, sausages, and scrambled eggs may not seem like much – but for the people attending the Abbotsford Connect event, it meant everything.

The line of people waiting to receive free support services, including a hot, buffet-style breakfast, extended out the door of the Sevenoaks Alliance Church, where the sixth annual Abbotsford Connect was hosted on October 18.

As part of B.C.’s Homelessness Action Week, the one-day, community-driven event brings together government agencies, non-profit service organizations, and church groups to offer support to Abbotsford’s vulnerable residents.

Individuals are given free access to more than 30 different services under one roof, ranging from medical care and mental health services to haircuts and clothing. Eye care, foot care, housing assistance, flu shots, income assistance applications, and even income tax preparation were all available on Saturday.

Alyson, a representative of the Elizabeth Fry Society, explains this event is not affiliated with any particular organization, but rather is a collaborative community effort.

“These agencies partner up and provide an opportunity for people in need. There’s no one person or agency governing [Abbotsford Connect]. It’s a team effort.”

Ward Draper, executive director of 5 and 2 Ministries and one of Abbotsford Connect’s original founders, agrees.

Images: Blake McGuire

Abbotsford Connect brought out all kinds of volunteers and organizations, pooling efforts to give people the aid they need.

“I think what’s amazing is that we can bring so many different organizations together from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and ideologies to address things,” he says. “We’ve got feminist agencies, we’ve got secular government agencies, we’ve got church agencies, and it’s hosted by a church.”

The event is called Abbotsford Connect because it connects the community through the relationships formed between clients, volunteers, businesses, and service providers. Community members volunteer their time to guide clients one-on-one through the maze of services.

While many volunteers were drawn to this event through their churches, occupations, or schools, other individuals, like Cheryl Spence, came of their own accord because they saw a need in the community.

“I saw this event and thought, ‘What can I do? I’m not a big agency, I’m just one person. Well, I can sew a button,’” she says. “So I brought my own sewing machine.”

She spent the day repairing clothing and fixing zippers – an especially important service for homeless people as winter approaches.

Arlene, a volunteer with 5 and 2 Ministries, notes that sometimes simply informing people about the community services that are available to them can make a difference.

“I just told a woman that she can get bus passes for $45 a year because she’s on disability. She had no idea,” she says. “Lots of people don’t know what resources are available to them.”

Beyond offering information, Abbotsford Connect makes this wide variety of essential services easily accessible to a population that often finds it difficult to get around the city.

“It is essential to have all these different services in one place,” notes Michelle Veeneman, a Salvation Army representative. “It’s hard for many of these people to travel to all these different services in different locations.”

Brian Mills of the BC Schizophrenia Society agrees.

“More connections are needed so that mental health patients don’t have to run all over town. If a person is ill, they often give up very quickly and don’t get treated.”

[pullquote]“When you’re homeless, you are labelled, and stuck in that label. It’s hard to get out of it…”[/pullquote]

Margaret Sigsworth, from the BC Responsible and Problem Gambling Program, believes that the importance of this event lies in its potential to start conversations and build common understanding.

“We need to go where the people are. We need to meet them here,” she explains. “[The homeless] population is one that needs the most support and often gets the least.

“It’s not about solving the problem in a day – it’s about starting a conversation. We aren’t going to change the world in three seconds, but we can get people thinking.”

According to Draper, approximately a third of Abbotsford Connect’s attendees are homeless. The rest are low-income families, single parents, or otherwise marginalized.

For Ruth, a single mother of two living on the brink of homelessness, this event is more than just about the services she receives. It renews her sense of hope.

“I depend on the public to care for me. It’s their love and support that is keeping me alive,” she explains. “Without them I don’t know if I could go on.”

One client, Leslie, maintains that it’s difficult to shake the stigma of homelessness.

“When you’re homeless, you are labelled, and stuck in that label. It’s hard to get out of it,” she says. “I am not a ‘homeless person’; I am a person who is homeless.”

Many of the individuals who take part in this event are not homeless, but are supported by provincial income assistance. Dorothy, a woman depending on disability benefits, describes the difficulty of living on the edge.

“You can’t find anything for the 300 and something bucks welfare gives you [for rent]. They need to do something more,” she says. “I’ve never been homeless, but if I didn’t have my daughter living with me, I don’t know where I’d be.”

This is confirmed by the latest Abbotsford Vital Signs Report, released this month by the Abbotsford Community Foundation. It indicated that the annual living wage for a family of four in the Fraser Valley is $59,569 – but at the current minimum wage, two parents working full time would only earn $37,310.

For low-income families, housing may not be the only concern. Many local people don’t get enough to eat.

3000 people per month rely on the Abbotsford Food Bank. But last week, the Food Bank’s executive director Dave Murray told the Abbotsford Times that their stock of food is at a record low for this time of year. The Food Bank operates entirely on donations and receives no funding from the government.

James, a volunteer with the 5 and 2 Ministries who used to be homeless himself, knows what this could mean for vulnerable people who rely on that service to survive.

“I’ve seen people literally die or get sick because they don’t have enough to eat,” he says.

Many of Abbotsford Connect’s guests may not know where their next meal is coming from. The free breakfast and lunch prepares them for the day’s work of connecting to other community services. It’s one step toward the stability they are seeking.

“Everything’s the best,” said Mary, a guest who had just enjoyed a hot breakfast in the Sevenoaks Alliance Church’s gymnasium. “It’s all here, everything I needed. I’m so happy to be here.”

Many community volunteers spoke of the fulfillment they got from offering their time and energy at this event.

“Seeing a smiling face is the best reward,” said Brian Mills. “Better than anything money can get you.”

Gord, a client who acquired granola bars, new bed sheets, and waterproof winter boots, expressed his gratitude for the event. He wants to see similar events held more frequently in the future.

“Everything [at Abbotsford Connect] is so useful to me — every single thing,” he says. “I can’t describe how much it means to have it,” he says. “They should hold it once a month.”

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