Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lookout marks 40 years in Downtown Eastside

The Lookout Emergency Aid Society has operated in the Downtown Eastside for 40 years.

During one of her first volunteer shifts at Lookout Emergency Aid Society 40 years ago, Karen O’Shannacery, then a 20-year-old, found a man dead in a garbage bin. He’d presumably crawled in to warm up at a time when Vancouver had only one shelter, operating in the Downtown Eastside, with 15 beds.

Street homelessness was even more visible then, says O’Shannacery, now executive director of Lookout. “We did find people who were dead in the street.”

The average homeless person in 1971 was a 65-year old alcoholic man. Those into drugs used heroin. Today, the average homeless person in Metro Vancouver is aged 32 to 35 and suffers with a mental illness, drug addiction, or both. Three-quarters are men. “I can’t tell you last time I met somebody who was addicted to heroin,” O’Shannacery said. “Now, almost everybody is a poly-drug user and it’s far more challenging.”

The founders of the non-profit charitable Lookout in 1971 thought they’d “cure” homelessness in 10 years. Four decades later, the number of turn-aways at their shelter is rising. But services have improved, lives have been saved and formerly homeless people have become healthy members of society, O’Shannacery said.

Services are no longer solely centered in the Downtown Eastside. Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson promised to end street homelessness by 2015, and the provincial government is helping construct social housing on 14 city-owned sites, although the number of units to be built doesn’t make up for lowest cost housing stock that’s been lost. Lookout celebrates its 40th anniversary Aug. 27 with a party in Oppenheimer Park. The mayor has proclaimed it “Lookout’s solutions to homelessness day.”
The day includes music, food, games, the opportunity to donate clothes and a dunk tank. “I’ve been told that there’s a whole whack of people who are lined up to get me wet,” O-Shannacery said.

Lookout provides non-judgmental services to more than 9,200 people a year who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. It runs an emergency shelter that operates 24 hours, seven days a week, and offers basic outreach services that include showers and laundry, connections to mental health and addiction services and a drop-in activity space for people with serious mental illnesses. Lookout provides 625 units of transitional and permanent housing, including 37 units in Mount Pleasant. The non-profit also provides job training.
O’Shannacery laughed when asked how homelessness could be solved. She said the solution lies in long-term commitments of federal money, political will and collaboration. “It’s not rocket science,” she said. “We know that people who are homeless need housing and we know that a great many of them need support because we know the principle characteristics that they’re challenged with. But those services are few and far between. That housing is few and far between, and there’s certainly not enough. We know the answers. We just have to invest the resources.” The Lookout celebration runs from noon to 4 p.m.

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