If all goes according to plan, Charles Lavoie will spend next Christmas with his family – a daughter and two young grandchildren he has yet to meet – back home in New Brunswick.
But this year, with limited means and admittedly working through addiction issues, the 64-year-old remains in Vancouver, where he has lived for the past 22 years. He has no relatives in the city, but sitting down to a generous lunchtime feast at First United Church in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on Christmas Day, Mr. Lavoie says he feels as if he's surrounded by family.
"The meals are beautiful and I have a lot of friends here," said the gruff-sounding demolition worker, who has frequented the inner-city church and shelter for many years.
"[The staff is] really nice here. They treat you really good and there are no problems, as far as I'm concerned. They're really, really excellent."
Mr. Lavoie is one of about 300 people who attended the Christmas lunch at the East Vancouver church, known just last year as the shelter that put roofs over the heads of many of the city's hardest to house – sometimes up to 300 people each night, on beds, church pews and the floor. But after the city cracked down on overcrowding last fall, the church had to turn away dozens of people each night to abide by the 240-person occupancy limit. Rev. Ric Matthews resigned last December over the red tape.
Meanwhile, as the province shifts its resources to more permanent supportive housing units, funding to the church has dwindled. Provincial funding that was slated to expire on July 31 was renewed; the last instalment of up to $1-million is now set to run out next summer. As a result, First United reduced its number of beds from 200 to 73 this past summer; the figure is now down to 60. Acting executive director Stephen Gray said in a year-end update posted to the church's website that 2013 will be "a year of new possibility," but much of the forecast remains unclear. Mr. Gray was not available for comment on Tuesday.
But on Christmas Day, as music spilled out through the church doors, none of these issues was apparent. Hungry patrons steadily streamed in, greeting staff by name as they settled into the dining area. The church served hot lunches over the course of three sittings, with traditional offerings including turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pie. The long, cafeteria-style tables were covered in red tablecloths, each anchored with a robust poinsettia plant.
"You couldn't get a better meal at a restaurant," said a smiling Mr. Lavoie, in between bites of his second helping.
About 25 volunteers helped prepare and serve the meals, while another 20 – students from Tamanawis Secondary School in Surrey – showed up on their own accord to greet and socialize with patrons.
"We wanted to give back to the community in a way, and why not do it on Christmas?" said Sukh Kainth, 17.
"We could be spoiled, at home opening gifts … or we could be out here with people who aren't as fortunate as we are, talking to them and helping make their Christmas better."
The night before, the church served a Christmas Eve dinner of turkey, ham, pineapple chutney and vegetables to about 150 people in need.
Rev. Sally McShane, who joined the church as a part-time minister in January and will become a full-time minister this coming February, credited the success and popularity of the church to its core principle of honouring and respecting those who walk through the doors.
"It's about recognizing that every person is somebody's child – and loved by God," she said, pausing to greet newcomers.
"It's about helping people to know that they are loved, that no matter what their life circumstances are, we have all struggled, and they are precious."
The B.C. government contributes about $17-million annually to run 1,300 shelter spaces in Vancouver, including 600 permanent, year-round shelter beds.