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Bill Wong's mission: “We have to stop the labelling. We're all in the same boat.”

Making communities better: Harnessing 25 years of lessons in New West to help folks in need
A new chapter: Bill Wong, second from left, receives a certificate from New Westminster-Burnaby MP Peter Julian for his years of service to the New Westminster UGM. Edith Tazumi, right, is the facility’s new manager. photo Solomon Hsu (UGM)

Bill Wong is planning to use the knowledge gained during 25 years at the helm of the Union Gospel Mission in New Westminster to help folks in need across the Lower Mainland.

At a recent community barbecue at the mission in downtown New West, the UGM celebrated the contributions of Wong, who had served as manager of the local mission since November 1998. He’s left to take on a new role as senior advisor in church relations.

“I’m going to be in the field, going to the various communities in the Fraser Valley, Vancouver or wherever I’m needed,” he said. I’m just going to go and try to make sure that these organizations, whatever they are, whether they be churches or recreation groups or businesses, that they understand we need them on board to care for their communities.”

Wong said he’ll speak to people at different places, give workshops and work to help build community connections. He said he’s been doing this type of work off the side of his desk, but he’ll now be able to do it full time.

“It’s always been a passion of mine,” he said.

Born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Wong moved to Vancouver with his family when he was seven. Saying he wasn’t great in school, Wong said he always loved dealing with people and knew that’s what he wanted to do.

“I was always drawn to people,” he said. “And sometimes they would come by and they said, you know, ‘Can I just talk with you?’ I didn’t even know who these people were, but there just seemed to be a connection; that I could talk to people.”

Wong held a “trail’s mix” of jobs, including work as a family counsellor and a chaplain to senior citizens, before becoming the manager at the New West UGM in 1998. He said the UGM originally opened a facility in New West in response to requests from churches, as they’d seen a need for services in the community.

“It was basically just a drop-in centre,” he said. “People could come in for a cup of coffee. The mandate was to keep the doors open and help the homeless just have a place to be. And just make sure that we were also working alongside the city.”

Through the years, the New West UGM has expanded its services to include breakfast and lunch, assorted programs and outreach.

“We’ve got a lot more going on that addresses needs specifically,” Wong told the Record. “Instead of just saying, ‘Come on in and get out of the rain,’ now we want to help you with housing, we want to help you with your meals, your job search, and we just want to help you to get up tomorrow morning.”

During his time with the UGM in New Westminster, Wong said he’s tried to develop a good working relationships with city hall and with other agencies. Along with Dave Brown of the Lookout society, Wong said he helped start the New Westminster Homelessness Coalition – an inter-agency group that brings together agencies providing services to vulnerable folks, as well as the city, so they can work collectively to try and best meet the needs of the many people they deal with.

“That gave a message that we’re working on it together,” he said. “It was not just one group doing something and someone else doing something. It was easier for the homeless person, too, to get the help, because it saves them having to tell their story 15, 14, 13 times to get the help.”

Wong is confident the experiences he’s had in New Westminster will serve him well in his new role.

“Every community has a homeless problem,” he said. “It’s just educating people and letting them know that these folks, they are no different than we are. Many of them were very successful in their lives earlier, but a decision or just something happened to them, and they found themselves in need.”

When he started working at the New West UGM 25 years ago, Wong said he had little knowledge about homelessness.

“This has been a great education for me,” he said. “I’m feeling really blessed to be able to go and support these other community groups.”

People are people, regardless of their life’s circumstances, Wong said.

“These are human beings. They’re people. And they’re labelled. We wrestle with labels all over our community. We have to stop the labelling,” he said. “We’re all in the same boat. We just need to just respect each other and just try to get on board to help each other.”