Street-involved adults living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) struggle daily with poverty, mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, violence, social isolation, and with the legacy of past traumas. In the midst of this, Street Outreach Priest, Fr. Matthew Johnson, seeks by word and deed, to remind each person he encounters of their infinite value in the eyes of God. The DTES is a parish where anything can and does happen, where no day is typical, and where Jesus Christ is found in the least expected persons and places.
The COVID-19 time of social distancing has impacted everyone, but modern technological tools have been utilized to keep communities connected, however, Fr. Johnson’s “parish” is not reachable by Zoom, therefore it was and remains difficult for him to maintain active contact relationships with his community.
Fr. Matthew was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for diocesan communications with a focus on how SOI is navigating the COVID-19 crisis.
Thank-you, Fr. Matthew for speaking with us. Please tell us a few things about SOI that readers may not know, and also please give us a little bit of background about, and a timeline describing the beginnings of the ministry?
My work in the DTES began with a debilitating episode of depressive illness. The late Fr. David Retter, then-rector of St. James’ Church (SJC) invited me to stay at the St. James Clergy House, where I began my convalescence. It was then, in the very depths of my own journey, that I started to walk through the surrounding community, meeting people on the street. Many of these men and women were in the depths too, yet they didn’t have the support and resources I did.
I met a man who had just completed a penitentiary sentence for homicide. He was homeless and trying to get help with his addiction (drug use is common in prison) but getting nowhere. Coming to know him, I discovered there was almost no ‘social safety net’, if you’re on the street and addicted or mentally ill. I assisted him in practical ways but perceived that it was the moral support and accompaniment of a priest that made the difference for him, in recovering his morale, reconnecting with family, and moving home. That’s when the idea of the outreach germinated.
Later, in 2004, with Fr. Retter’s permission, and the mentoring of outreach worker Dr. Judy Graves, ODNW, “The Steps” project began as a part-time experimental outreach of SJC, with me as outreach worker. It grew from there.
In 2005, with the support of Bishop Michael Ingham, the Street Outreach Initiative (SOI) was formed as a joint ministry of the Diocese of New Westminster and SJC, with the significant partnership of investors from the broader community. We are very much a ministry of the diocese, but our parochial and spiritual home is SJC, where I am a member of the clergy team. SOI is rooted in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of urban clergy outreach, and in SJ’s history of engagement with the people who live in this large parish, which is coextensive with the DTES.
By the grace of God, and the help of many wonderful people, we’ve been rolling now for fifteen years.
Although BC didn’t go into “Lockdown” to the same extent as many other places around the world, Phase One must’ve restricted your access to your parish, how did you deal with that, and how did you remain connected?
With the onset of the pandemic and Phase One, at first I had permission to continue operations as long as I could maintain the required precautions. After a couple of weeks though it became apparent that this was not possible, and we had to suspend the on-street walks. This was a difficult call.
Other fronts, through which we engage the community were also denied us. These include the trauma workshops we host, weekday masses attended by community members, the elder-and-priest rounds, as well as ‘fifth step’ addiction recovery meetings, and in-person pastoral counselling. Also, the St James ‘Open Church’ project, which offers street-involved residents access to the church for quiet, prayer, welcome, and refreshment, was also suspended. All normal ways of engagement were cut off!
We adjusted a bit by using phone and text to communicate with some of our members who had phones. Beyond Vancouver, I spoke with members in places like Northern Saskatchewan and Vancouver Island. I even heard a confession by phone. We’ve made contact with thousands of street-involved brothers and sisters through the years, but we keep a list of roughly 450 regular contacts. Street Outreach Deacon, Joyce Locht and I began praying daily for them and for all who live and serve in our Parish. Naming and picturing each person, and holding them prayerfully before God helped, given the pastoral longing we had to be with them.
Please describe a little bit of how you interact/liaise with the St. James’ ordained and lay staff? Did this change at all during Phase One?
With the closure of all churches including SJ, office interaction went virtual. I come to the empty Parish Centre once or twice a week for mail and paperwork. SOI’s Administrative Associate, Anna Wood and I maintained active contact by phone and email. Consultation with our Advisory Group is by email. Meetings with the clergy and lay leaders are by Zoom, and it sure makes meeting easy. I’m not much into social media, but whoever invented Zoom should get a direct pass to Heaven.
St. James’ is also using Zoom for its Sunday Liturgy. I’m amazed at how effective this is. You can’t offer a High Mass online. Without ritual movement, chanting, the sight and fragrance of incense, and the feeling of bells resounding. But these low-key Liturgies of the Word, led by Fr. Kevin Hunt (Rector of SJ), have been incredibly nurturing and successful. Deacon Joyce and I even used Zoom to offer a Christian Formation session, on practices for coping with stress and anxiety related to this pandemic.
Does SOI partner with any other compassionate service groups, and how are different organizations handling the pandemic, specifically regarding aid to street-involved adults?
Yes, we do partner with other groups. SOI has a longstanding relationship with Watari, an amazing organization which specializes in cross cultural outreach. With the support of St James’ rector and the wardens, we began the extensive paperwork and permission process required for Watari to use our kitchen for community meal preparation. The diocese was quite thorough—let me tell you!—in rightly requiring advance safety planning and accountability for this. Now, with all the approvals, Watari are preparing meals at SJ for vulnerable families in the community. There is also a grocery delivery service for low income families, and I’ve done some driving for them—making new contacts in the process.
Although they’re not a partner, I want to mention the DTES Response Fund, which was first off the mark with the pandemic, ahead of the city and most other organizations, in reaching out to residents of the privately run Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Hotels. These hotels are typically in appalling condition, with little care for the tenants.
My colleague, the Reverend Laurel Dykstra, Gathering Priest of Salal + Cedar Watershed Discipleship, and some of its members have been active volunteers with many others in this, at a nearby receiving and distribution facility. They provide necessities like meals, soap, toilet paper, hand gel, facemasks, cleaning solution, and even pet food, directly to the vulnerable residents of these hotels. Their rapid deployment, excellent safety protocols, and effective work are inspiring.
What do think will be the long-term result of closing the Oppenheimer Park tent city?
Before I comment on the Park or the neighbourhood, let me say that I speak as a worker in, and not a resident of, the DTES, so I don’t speak for the community.
Others I respect will disagree with me, but overall, I believe it was right to end the tent city in Oppenheimer Park. Thousands of residents of the DTES depend on that park as a life-giving place of refreshment, community life, and programming. They have been cut off from this for about eighteen months by the tent city and the significant safety problems. When you reside in a nine by ten foot room, you need a place to go, with greenery and trees and birds, where you can hang out, sip a coffee, and meet friends, away from the noise and tension of the street. The tent city was begun out of a genuine desperation for housing. But in my view it descended over the months into a dysfunctional and dangerous place. People were assaulted, weapons were constantly being confiscated, and on New Year’s Day a St. James' parishioner and member of our diocese—a gentle, generous, community-minded man—was murdered there. This shook our church and the surrounding community to the core.
Although some did not leave willingly, most campers have accepted new residences or hotel accommodations, with some supports and resources. But the fact remains that we have a severe shortage of low-income housing in the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD). Where will the next tent city spring up?
Respecting confidentiality completely could you talk a little bit about how members of the community were handling Phase One and how they are doing as Phase Two is rolled out.
Though necessary, the lockdown measures of Phase One have been generally difficult for community members. There are probably a hundred critical drop-in facilities and programmes for residents that are either cancelled outright or drastically scaled back. Numerous outreach programmes, ours included, were suspended. Sunrise Market, an affordable source of fresh vegetables, meats, and groceries was closed—leaving no comparable option for thousands on low incomes. It has now re-opened (as of this writing in late May).
Is there any specific data that you are aware of that reports on the incidence of infection and illness amongst the DTES community?
Wherever there is poverty there is diminished health and poor outcomes. And at the start of this pandemic I was deeply concerned for the medical well-being of our members in the DTES. Indeed, I anticipated many funerals. The novel coronavirus is particularly hard on those with pre-existing medical conditions, and the physical health of many DTES residents is marginal at best. Countless persons suffer from serious malnutrition. Many others have chronic health conditions that make them susceptible. Lots of folks have compromised immune systems and are less able to fight off infection. And numerous others suffer respiratory disease, making them particularly vulnerable to this respiratory tract infection.
Although I don’t have detailed statistics, so far it seems the street-involved community has been spared a major outbreak. And this, both with residents and with programme workers, who are conscientious about not bringing the virus into the community. Given the high density of people here, and people’s medical vulnerability, this is nothing less than a miracle. There are no guarantees, but may God grant that this reprieve continues. With autumn and winter rains though, people will spend more time indoors, and that could increase transmission.
How are you approaching Phase Two? What would you like to see happen during Phase Two in terms of awareness and support of those in the community you serve?
It has been hard to be separated for many weeks from our members.
As we cross into Phase Two, I have made several reconnaissance missions onto the streets, to gauge whether safe street work is possible. I’ve experimented with a fabric mask, which I was concerned would send the wrong message. I've avoided physical contact and observed meticulous hand washing. I wore my black clerical shirt, but without the white collar, which might send a mixed message when combined with a mask.
I was surprised that even with the mask, all my usual contacts, and others I know less well, recognized me readily. So, apparently the mask does not pose a major barrier for now. Although I cannot control all the variables, as someone who is careful, I feel reasonably safe. And without any major outbreak to date, I estimate the population here poses about the same hazard level as shopping at grocery store or pharmacy, or riding in an elevator in my building.
Having consulted the Outreach Advisory Group, which includes nurses and an outreach worker, who contributed numerous cautions, currently I have permission from Archbishop Skelton and diocesan leadership to re-engage on the street.
Where is God and the Church in this time?
Although this has been a trying time, I see Jesus Christ everywhere in this neighbourhood. He is present, in a sacramental way, in our sisters and brothers on the street (Matt 25.40). And I see God present, in the amazing community response to this pandemic. This includes faith-based organizations like First United, UGM, the Sisters of Charity, Khalsa Aid, Salal and Cedar, Jacobs Well, Mission Possible, the Salvation Army, 24/7 Prayer, local intentional communities, and others. The St James Music Academy deserves special mention for their outreach to families. I see God at work too through other organizations like Watari, DTES Response, Aboriginal Front Door, the SRO Collaborative, the Portland Hotel Society, and the Carnegie Community Action Project, to name a few.
It comes down to this . . . When we act, God acts.
Although the world is somewhat on “pause” the mission of God on earth through the example of Jesus Christ is never on pause and ministry requires financial resources. How can people give to sustain the ministry of SOI and what are some of the imminent needs?
SOI operates through the generous support of many people. We welcome new partners interested in supporting this work. Contributions can be made directly to “Diocese of New Westminster” with “Street Outreach Initiative” on the memo line or by donating online (select GIVING TYPE and scroll down to STREET OUTREACH INITIATIVE). At this time though, given the present needs in the Downtown Eastside, I encourage those who feel moved, equally to consider a gift to Watari or DTES Response—both of which have online websites.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
The one thing I will add is that although there has not yet been an outbreak, the DTES residents are still up against the considerable challenges they faced before the pandemic. Opioid overdoses continue unabated. The lack of affordable housing leaves an increasing number homeless, including more and more seniors. The conditions of available housing are frequently appalling. Resources and housing for the mentally ill are minimal — falling way short of real needs. Many with mental illness remain untreated, isolated, and extremely vulnerable, without help or hope. The lack of beds at addiction detox, treatment and recovery facilities, prevents those who are ready to make a change from acting on it, before the urge to use inevitably returns. Poverty, as it is experienced by these groups, and by many others in our midst, reduces life to a stressful daily struggle, which slowly grinds a person down.
Tackling these challenges is not impossible. And for the fiscally minded, addressing these needs upfront, is much less expensive overall than the cost of failing to do so. The representatives we elect need to be pressed on these matters of public policy. And we [all] must do the pressing! The wealthy and influential among us, may be especially well positioned to gain access to government ministers and leaders, and to raise the needs of the marginalized with decision makers. All of us can and must vote. But we must also seek out and speak directly to our MLAs and City Counsellors, about our concerns for the “least of these” among us. Those the Lord names as his brothers and sisters—and ours.