For 45 years, people with developmental disabilities have come to rely on safe housing, friends, and community programs from L’Arche Greater Vancouver.
Now, as the non-profit organization is facing a major rebuild with a $30-million price tag, its leaders are dreaming big about ways to provide affordable housing for seniors and other people squeezed by the Lower Mainland’s housing crisis.
“We’re building something that is going to be iconic, and I don’t mean from an architectural perspective,” said Ted Kuntz, head of the We All Belong fundraising campaign.
“This building will be an example that will change the way we see supporting vulnerable people.”
The aging L’Arche facilities in Burnaby provide housing for people with and without developmental disabilities based on a model by the late Catholic theologian and humanitarian Jean Vanier.
They also offer daytime programs such as baking and painting for those with developmental disabilities as well as neighbours who drop in from the nearby seniors’ residence or care home.
The $30 million they need to raise will keep programs running in temporary spaces, tear down the old structure, and build a three-storey facility with affordable housing for L’Arche, seniors, and others, while offering space for daytime programs and even a coffee house.
The new home will include 22 bedrooms for the L’Arche community, 10 suites for semi-independent seniors, and 29 rental units.
“We need more than housing. We need community,” said Kuntz. “Relationships are the key to a safe, secure, and good life.”
L’Arche isn’t the first Catholic-founded organization to come up with creative solutions to the Lower Mainland housing crisis.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish and the Knights of Columbus announced in May a partnership to create new housing in the West Point Grey area of Vancouver. That project would see 44 suites at below-market pricing for seniors, Redemptorist priests, and teachers at the parish school.
As part of its fundraising efforts, L’Arche hosted an art show at the Schadbolt Centre for the Arts Oct. 23. On display were 19 pieces of artwork, each created by two people: one with a developmental disability, and one without.
Working with the L’Arche community is “like being asked to dance” when you’ve never danced before, said Annelise Jacky, a volunteer who arrived from France about 20 years ago.
After helping run daytime programs and falling in love with the community, she applied to live in a L’Arche home full time. She has now spent about 15 years living or serving with L’Arche.
“It’s an interesting, intense experience you remember your whole life,” she said. “You go from being total strangers to knowing each other in your PJs – and on your good days, bad days, and bad-hair days.”
So far, the non-profit has raised about $17 million of its goal, thanks in part to significant help from B.C. Housing, the City of Burnaby, and the Sisters of St. Ann.
For Kuntz, taking on the complex project required an act of faith.
“It’s a little like parenting,” he said. “If you knew how challenging it would be you might not step into it, but now that you’re in it, you see what the next step is.”
Kuntz said one of the most difficult barriers he’s faced during this campaign is that while the Lower Mainland housing crisis is well known and Jean Vanier is a household name among many Burnaby residents, L’Arche’s work remains relatively obscure.
He has met with business groups and philanthropists hoping to change that, and it’s resulted in some surprising support. One day a man who had never set foot in the Burnaby home rang the buzzer and dropped off a cheque, saying he wished to remain anonymous.
“When those things happen, it feels like the Spirit’s at work here,” said Kuntz. “When you hold a vision like this, angels show up. You don’t necessarily know where they’re going to come from, but they arrive on your doorstep.”
He said construction plans are in the final permit stage with the City of Burnaby.