With a new hyper-local focus, faith communities are continuing their fight against poverty and homelessness across the Edmonton region.
Stepping into 2019, the Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative (CRIHI) is emphasizing a new directive for local networks in five key locations.
Mike Van Boom, housing ambassador with CRIHI, says this will allow a more intimate approach to their goals ̶ no longer focusing on a generic city-wide approach, but finding out what’s specifically needed in certain neighbourhoods.
“That is our main goal today, to enable these local area networks,” Van Boom said at CRIHI’s annual general meeting on March 20.
“It gets boots on the ground. By getting people around the table, looking at local areas with what their needs are, what their assets are, and the possible community partners who are there – it’s an eye-opener for everyone.”
CRIHI listed Mill Woods, Greater Hardisty, Riverbend/Terwillegar, Strathcona, and Greenfield south to Blue Quill as initial network locations. “That’s just where we’re starting with our current capacity,” Van Boom said. “We’re certainly hoping to expand our networks across the city.”
Gathered around tables in the Archdiocese of Edmonton’s assembly hall, various faith representatives tackled the strengths and needs of these five areas. Topics ranged from the need for affordable housing and more options for young families to ways to tackle drug use, assist refugee families, and encourage events to bring people together, such as an Anglican church’s pancake supper.
“There’s tremendous diversity between each area, and the conversations will be quite different,” said Rick Chapman, an Anglican minister and CRIHI co-chair.
“It’s a huge coverage area that needs more intimate partnerships. The synagogues, mosques, temples, and churches – these can serve as an access point for building relationships.”
Welcome Home and the importance of integration
One project that earned particular praise and interest was Welcome Home – Catholic Social Services’ volunteer-based initiative to help people transition out of homelessness by providing friendships and an active social life.
Welcome Home currently has 85 volunteers. Team leader Claire Rolheiser would like to see the number rise to 120 in 2019. Their call for more volunteer support was met with some encouragement.
Earl Choldin, chair of the social action committee with Temple Beth Ora, said that project in particular piqued his interest, and may be one in which he can get his congregation involved. Susanne Goshko with the Edmonton Quakers was also impressed with the Welcome Home efforts.
Rolheiser says the ability to build close friendships and integrate into a community is absolutely vital in preventing people from returning to the streets.
“One of the things [formerly homeless] people really struggle with is loneliness and isolation. Every time we interview someone, it strikes us how alone these people are,” she said. “For people that don’t have someone to turn to — not even someone to go out for coffee with — we help them move forward and change their lives.
“We’ve seen some really amazing relationships develop and really seen our participants blossom in the process.”
Volunteering with the organization since 2015, Maria Hicks said her work with Welcome Home no longer feels like an obligation, but a real friendship. The person Hicks has worked with for the last four years recently dealt with the passing of her mother, and Hicks was one of the first calls she made.
“She’s very appreciative of the relationship we have,” Hicks said. “Before, she would sit in a corner and feel sorry for herself, and now she looks forward to our weekly meetings.
“I no longer meet with her as a volunteer, but as a friend.”
Hicks stresses that the companionship built through Welcome Home not only benefits the participants, but it also reveals to the volunteers much about the nature of homelessness.
“At first, I felt very intimidated and didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “Now I know there’s nothing to be intimidated about. They are normal people that just happen to be in a challenging situation. This made me open my eyes to this side of our world that so many of us don’t want to be a part of.”
CRIHI is also looking to broaden its funding opportunities this year, and is asking any volunteers with experience in grant writing to reach out to them. As well, on May 1, a faith leaders’ workshop on affordable housing will be held with priests, rabbis, pastors and imams of the region.
To help ease the financial burdens for low-income families and individuals, CRIHI is proposing a zero-percent interest mortgage initiative.
“We were nudged into this area by our Muslim brothers and sisters,” said Lutheran Pastor Kathleen Schmitke. “The conversations are now ongoing; these zero-percent interest mortgages are not an impossibility.”
Van Boom said CRIHI has already had discussions with Habitat for Humanity on that proposal, and hopes to bring other faith communities and the Alberta Treasury Branch to the table. While it has been voiced most strongly in the Muslim community, Van Boom thinks it’s an initiative that can resonate with many faiths.
“A lot of faith communities have teachings against usury. It is strong in the Christian tradition, even though we have left it behind in some sense,” he said. “So let’s talk about finding a way to give people access to home ownership that doesn’t involve having to pay off enormous amounts of interest. Currently, you can end up paying two or three times the cost of your home in interest.”
For Van Boom, this need to bring the faith communities of the area together to a place of mutual understanding is crucial for the success of CRIHI. The initiative was born in 2011, when 23 leaders of faith and spiritual communities, including Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, first pledged their public support of efforts to end homelessness in Edmonton.
According to a 2018 progress report, there are currently an estimated 1,720 people experiencing chronic homelessness in the city. As well, more than 22,000 Edmonton households spend more than 50 per cent of their income on rent, and over 6,000 households are on the waitlist for social housing.
While there is still a long road ahead, the CRIHI’s event demonstrated that interfaith dialogue and cooperation can play a pivotal role in ending homelessness for the Edmonton area.