After 15 years of serving warm bowls of soup to Langley’s homeless, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is closing its Tuesday soup kitchen and Saturday drop-in service.
Father Don Larson said the soup kitchen and the drop-in will end at the end of May.
“Recently the soup kitchen organizers reviewed the outreach and decided changes are necessary. Food and clothing are no longer the primary needs of those we assist. Something more is required and so a new plan is to be developed,” said Father Larson.
A new pastor is taking over the church and he will look at how outreach will be delivered.
Larson admitted there have been some challenges with the soup kitchen, specifically with the homeless.
“The present outreach encourages transients to bring their carts onto the parish property on Tuesday mornings and some of them forget to leave at the end of the meal.
“Not infrequently, the homeless have set up small encampments and slept overnight around the parish hall. This has caused much annoyance to the neighbours, the City and also at times the priests who live on the property.”
City mayor Ted Schaffer met with Larson early in April to discuss the issue of the homeless camps and the concerns of neighbouring businesses. On March 31, the City sent a letter to the church, as well as other organizations, including the Vineyard Church, Penny Pincher and the owners of the mall across from the church, informing them that complaints had been raised and that they could be in violation of City bylaws.
The soup kitchen feeds seniors, the homeless population, low-income families, migrants and the socially isolated.
Volunteers and people who help the homeless are hearing a lot of “where do we go now?” from the people who have come to rely on the soup kitchen.
Some people have come out every Tuesday since it opened and some of the volunteers have also been there from the start. A band of Langley seniors have played polka music every Tuesday.
But the gathering of the homeless outside the church has grown and so has the number of shopping carts that come with them. They are loitering in the area, some creating pop-up tent cities which isn’t allowed under City bylaws.
More than 90 people were counted as homeless in Langley in last year’s Metro Vancouver homelessness count.
But the number is much higher and growing with more people coming from the Downtown Eastside and from Alberta.
The City of Langley has been fielding complaints from the public and from nearby businesses which have been overrun by people sleeping in their stoops, leaving garbage and defecating at their back doors.
One volunteer, who didn’t want to be named, said in winter the soup gives people much-needed warmth and a safe place to come in from the cold and wet.
Those in need also are given some groceries to take home, a vital component for many, she said. The soup kitchen is the only social interaction some have all week.
Outreach worker Fraser Holland who does outreach work at the soup kitchen, pointed out that in the heat of summer, the soup kitchen and drop-in offer water to help prevent dehydration.
“St. Joe’s has done amazing work. The faith community has made that commitment to the community long before Gateway of Hope, before outreach existed, it was the faith community keeping the most vulnerable alive and healthy,” said Holland.
“It’s a shame they are talking about closing it down.”
He said the homeless also use the washroom at St. Joe’s to clean up and take care of basic hygiene.
“It’s also a place for them to sit and relax. They are always being moved around. There they can just relax,” he said.
He’s been hearing the frustration on both sides.
“People living on the streets are really feeling pushed out and are wondering where they belong,” said Holland. “But businesses have rights too, and if you are hurting a business that’s not fair either.”
Holland has some guesses as to why there is an increase in the visibility of the local homeless population.
Many spots where they used to camp have been developed.
Where the Mufford overpass is now was actually a popular spot for camps. The Willoughby slope was also a popular spot.
“There are less places to camp that are close to the services, resulting in more shopping carts and more tents,” he said.
And there are a lot more eyes on the streets than before. Condos have replaced small bungalows across the street from St. Joseph’s.
“That’s a lot of eyes on the back of St. Joe’s, which means the City is going to get a lot more calls.”
While Gateway of Hope offers a daily lunch, serving hundreds of people every day, some homeless in the City don’t like the rules there, including not being able to bring multiple carts.
At a recent Saturday drop-in, more than 30 homeless people came in a two-hour period. Sometimes they can get a haircut or a nurse is there to address medical issues.
Langley United Church offers a drop-in with food every Monday and Wednesday. But they are soon going to close for renovations.
A parishioner at St. Joe’s called The Times to say he doesn’t want the soup kitchen to close.
“The City is blaming the church, when I don’t think we are the problem,” said the man who didn’t want to be named. “We believe in being kind to your neighbour. Our mentality is to lend a helping hand those in need. I ask the City, is there a plan B for these people?”
Schaffer believes the soup kitchen is a necessary service in the community, not just for the homeless but those who are on a limited income or are new the community.
“I’m hoping the new pastor will find a way to make it work for everyone all around,” said Schaffer.
“This is a really caring community and there is a desire out there to make it better and to help those who need it,” he said. “The whole region is being challenged with how to best help people who are homeless, but each municipality only has so many resources.”
The City hired a consultant to provide the homeless task force with suggestions of how to better use those resources, what is needed and an action plan. Schaffer is hoping to hear from that consultant in the last week of May.