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Volunteer understands those he helps

Local man has helped find housing for more than 100 people in need in the city

New Westminster resident Gary MacDonald first experienced homelessness when he was 12 years old.

After an altercation with his stepfather, he was told he couldn't stay at home anymore, and found himself spending his nights at a laundromat.

To avoid being caught by the RCMP officer who patrolled the area, he slept inside a clothes dryer.

"Not the most comfortable sleep," he says matter-of-factly.

Despite having to fend for himself - living with a school friend's family and then at 15, renting his own apartment - MacDonald finished school and held down a part-time job.

A couple of decades later, he was making a good living working at a car rental company.

But then his stepfather got cancer and his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and he decided to move in with them to become a full-time caregiver.

For eight years he supported them, before his stepfather passed away in 1996 and his mother in 2002.

Once he'd paid off the cost of the funerals and found himself facing rising debt, MacDonald was forced to sell the house and, once again, found himself without a place to live.

He couch-surfed for a while, and then discovered the New Westminster Union Gospel Mission, which provides meals and support services for the homeless in the Lower Mainland.

Since that day, MacDonald has had a roof over his head and has made it his mission to help other homeless people find a place to live.

Every day he is there, talking with people, listening to them and offering his advice on how to access shelters and subsidized housing.

They trust him because he's struggled just as they have, and because he cares.

"It's self-esteem, that's the basic need, right? Once they get a step in the right direction, they can do marvellous things," he says.

MacDonald says a lot of people, especially youth, are unaware of how to seek help, and he feels good knowing he is there to provide support.

"Fifty-two per cent of Canadian families are only a two-week paycheque away from being homeless themselves, and until you've been in that situation, you really don't know," he says. "You can't experience it till you're out there in this cold world with nobody to help you. But there are a lot of people out there who are in business to help. As I said, if we're not our brother's keeper, we're all going to hell in a hand basket."

Bill Wong, manager of the New Westminster Union Gospel Mission, says MacDonald provides a valuable service because of his experiences and genuine compassion for those who are struggling.

"People like that are pretty valuable because it's a community, it's a family community kind of relationship that we've tried to establish with the folks in New Westminster that are hurting," he said. "And then you get ambassadors like Gary MacDonald who basically comes on his own just because he cares."

In the last decade, through his time at the organization, MacDonald estimates he has helped about 100 people get off the streets and back on track.

For his own experience, he says he is still grateful for having found the help he needed.

"They do a lot of good work," he says. "The Union Gospel Mission has been the backbone of the people that are maybe bullied or beaten or homeless, like myself."

For more information about the Union Gospel Mission, visit