This World Day of the Poor, Nov. 18, Pope Francis is calling on the Church’s members to reevaluate their priorities.
“We are called to make a serious examination of conscience to see if we are truly capable of hearing the cry of the poor,” he said in his message for the international observance.
Pope Francis said the Lord hears the cries of the poor and homeless, and the Church should take care to do the same.
“To hear their voice, what we need is the silence of people who are prepared to listen. If we speak too much ourselves, we will be unable to hear them. At times I fear that many initiatives, meritorious and necessary in themselves, are meant more to satisfy those who undertake them than to respond to the real cry of the poor.”
Pope Francis launched the first World Day of the Poor in 2017. In his inaugural message, he said the Church should show love for others in actions, not just in words. This year, he echoed the sentiment, emphasizing that while good actions are important, they must be appropriate to the actual needs of the poor and vulnerable.
“How many poor people today are like Bartimaeus, sitting on the roadside and looking for meaning in their lives! How many of them wonder why they have fallen so far and how they can escape,” he said. “They are waiting for someone to come up to them and say: ‘Take heart; rise, he is calling you.’”
There are countless Catholic-based initiatives serving the poor in the Lower Mainland. Here is a snapshot of what some are doing in the Downtown Eastside, one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods.
Agape Street Ministry
887 Keefer Street
Founded in 1996, Agape delivers bags of candy and short, inspirational messages to prostituted women in the Downtown Eastside. Volunteers can be seen walking on Hastings or Cordova Streets in signature red jackets, giving away over 43,000 bags of candy each year (not including various Christmas and birthday gifts).
The ministry has recently expanded to Surrey’s Whalley neighbourhood and to Chilliwack and says it is always looking for new volunteers.
Agape is affiliated with Sancta Maria House, a first-stage transition house that runs the 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, life skills training, and other programs for women with addictions in Vancouver.
Catholic Charities Men’s Hostel
828 Cambie Street
This shelter offers 90-day stays and referrals to services for men who are homeless, drug-addicted, and in other difficult circumstances. In 2017, the Men’s Hostel hosted 40,355 total stays (including over 3,000 winter weather emergency stays) and served a total of 38,856 meals. Hostel employee Alexandre Legere also offers free haircuts twice a month to men in need.
A surprising number of the men they serve are seniors; 52 per cent of guests looking for short-term housing or emergency housing in 2017 were over 50 years old.
The Men’s Hostel gratefully accepts donations of clean mugs, socks, and underwear, which they give away to their guests.
326 Pender Street
This ministry, founded by Catholics in the U.S. in 1972, helps young people aged 16-24 who are homeless, fleeing abuse, have aged out of foster care, or are otherwise vulnerable. Locally, it serves about 110 youth a day through its 59-bed shelter and various other services.
To raise awareness and funds for street youth, Covenant House hosts several annual Sleep Out events, where participants hear testimonies from formerly homeless young people and spend the night outdoors in a sleeping bag on a piece of cardboard. Upcoming events include a Sleep Out with executives and business leaders Nov. 15, with professionals Feb. 28, 2019, and with mothers and daughters May 30, 2019.
Good Shepherd Street Ministry
381 East Cordova Street
Like Agape, volunteers with Good Shepherd Street Ministry go for walks in the Downtown Eastside with free candy bags and inspirational messages. The notes are handwritten by local children and given away, along with occasional rosaries, Bibles, socks, hats, gloves, and moments of prayer to anyone on the streets who’d like one.
“Our goal is to introduce all those we meet to the beauty and power and comfort of prayer, and to let them know that when they walk in the light of Christ, they will never be in darkness,” said Linda Noel, who founded the group in 2015.
The ministry is based at St. Paul’s Church on Cordova Street. Noel said the group is always looking for donations of socks, gloves, and funds, as well as volunteers to help pick up and drop off candy bins.
Society of St. Vincent de Paul
1738 East Hastings Street
Twice a week in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, volunteers from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul can be seen serving 200-300 sandwiches and coffee to the homeless.
In 2017, the society's 280 or so members worked 9,700 volunteer hours, paying visits, distributing food, and delivering furniture to vulnerable people across the Lower Mainland including the poor, ill, and elderly.
The society also runs two thrift stores, where the less fortunate can receive free furniture and clothing, and the more fortunate can buy items, with the proceeds going toward SSVDP outreach programs. According to Robin Newton, the president of the Vancouver Central Council, last year the society helped 2,868 individuals and gave away $49,500 worth of food and household goods through these two thrift stores.
The SSVDP is gratefully accepting financial donations on the World Day of the Poor.
The Door Is Open
255 Dunlevy Avenue
This drop-in ministry provides about 400 free meals every day, all year round (including Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) to its homeless and poor neighbours. It runs various other programs as well, including Women’s Wednesdays, a seniors’ wellness group, an offering of free clothing and blankets, and referrals to various services including shelters.
It is operated by Carmelite nuns and hundreds of volunteers from parishes, schools, and various civic groups and companies. Local Missionaries of Charity, who live next door, can be seen delivering sandwiches at nearby Oppenheimer Park.
“If it wasn’t for The Door Is Open, I don’t know where I’d be,” a guest, Jacques, told staff. “I hope you guys stay for a long time.”