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Photos: Union Gospel Mission celebrates its reopening in New West

New programs and a freshened up space unveiled at the Sept. 7 reopening of Union Gospel Mission in downtown New Westminster

A place that serves as a social lifeline for some community members has reopened after being closed by COVID. 

The Union Gospel Mission in New West held a block party and barbecue on Tuesday to celebrate Wednesday’s reopening of its newly renovated space on Clarkson Street. 

“We've really missed being able to connect with our community and we're so excited to engage with them again,” said UGM spokesperson Rachael Allen. “We have got a new brand new, freshened-up space inside that we're excited to welcome people back into. We've got some new programs for the fall that we're really excited to help interconnect and support our community here in New West.” 

While the UGM has continued to provide take-out hot meals since the start of the pandemic, Allen said many people have missed the social element that comes with dine-in services. 

“A lot of people who come here for meals, it's not only just for a hot meal and to get some nourishment for the day, but it's also one of their social lifelines,” she said. “A lot of folks here in our community say that the UGM is one of their only social interactions during the day. A lot of people don't even have the chance to talk to people on a day-to-day basis, and their interactions with people might be people ignoring them, or not even acknowledging them.” 

As of Sept. 7, the UGM in New West is once again open for dining in meal service at 658 Clarkson St. Breakfast is served from 8 to 9 a.m. and lunch is from noon to 1 p.m.  

“We are just so excited to have that chance to connect with people again, like that, and also to provide the connections to further programs and services,” Allen said. “They might come in for some social interaction and for friendship but then we're also able to provide more supports and services, whether it's referring to other community organizations or being able to meet their needs here.” 

Attendees at Tuesday’s block party included a New West mom, who lives in an apartment but struggles financially because she’s on disability. 

“It's devastatingly expensive,” she said. “All I hear on the news is just how things keep going up and up because of inflation, and this place is here. When I have little to nothing, this place, I can come down and get a meal. I'm really grateful to have this.” 

The New West resident said she appreciates the sense of belonging and community at the Union Gospel Mission. 

“If you do come down here one or two times, they recognize you. And they're always like, ‘Hey, how's it going?’ They're always wanting to know you,” she said. “Having a place like this is important.” 

The UGM’s newly renovated dining room features fresh paint, new flooring, new tables and chairs (replacing the dated food court tables) and a mural done by UGM New West supervisor Edith Tazumi. 

“We really wanted the space to feel like home for folks,” Allen said.

Kari Bergrud, manager of program development in satellites, said the dining room includes seating for 98 diners. It’s also the space where UGM staff meet with community members on a variety of outreach services, such as helping them with paperwork and other issues.

“The list is very long when it comes when it comes to the needs of the community,” she said.

A new shower facility was created during the renovation, which was done while the doors were closed to the public.

“The showers are so exciting because they are such a limited resource,” Bergrud said. “Not a lot of organizations are able to provide a shower.” 

The Union Gospel Mission has operated in New Westminster for about 28 years, and has been located in the Clarkson Street building for 20 years. In addition to providing its own meal and outreach programs, as well as its Found Boutique (a social enterprise shop at 641 Columbia St.), the building also provides space for Dan's Legacy, a non-profit organization that offers programs for youth who have barriers to employment.

A diverse clientele

People with and without homes, seniors and younger folks, and families with children are among the folks will once again be able to make use of services provided by the UGM when it reopens.

The Sept. 7 reopening marks the return of pre-COVID programs, such as hot meals, one-on-one appointments, outreach services, counselling and chapel services.

“We'll be providing some new outreach support services,” Allen said. “So being able to provide emergency clothing, personal hygiene items, we'll be able to process VATs – that's the vulnerability assessment tests to help people with housing.”

The Union Gospel Mission’s mobile mission van will be going out to different spaces in the city to connect with folks who may not be able to get to the mission. A case manager will be able to work one-on-one with folks in the community.

Tazumi said the reality is there just isn't enough housing, but there’s also varying levels of readiness for people who are unhoused.

“Outreach workers are really there and caseworkers are really there to try to assess and to say, Hey, where are you right now? And we'd like to kind of come and be where you are and journey with you so that we can help you wherever you are to get to the next level of where you need to be,” she said. “It's a very complex thing.”

In addition to people who are unhoused, Tazumi said the UGM supports folks in a range of life circumstances. That includes people who work but can’t afford to buy groceries because of the cost of living, and people who have jobs or have been evicted but can’t find homes they can afford.

“I think what you might imagine of someone being in a circumstance like is very different than our perceptions,” she said. “That's why I feel like there's so much that connects us, because so many people in these kind of situations are our parents or maybe our siblings or friends, co-workers, and you never know.”

By the numbers:

Here’s a sampling of some of the numbers from the Union Gospel Mission in New West.

* 2019 – pre-pandemic, indoor services: total meals served – 41,791; total meals served from January to July – 25,805; average number of breakfasts served per month – 1,950; average number of lunches served per month – 1,532

* 2021 – pandemic, to-go style meals: total meals served – 34,354; average number of breakfasts served per month – 1,420; average number of lunches served per month – 1,443

* 2022 (to-go style meals): total meals served from January to July – 23,017; average number of breakfasts served per month (January to July) – 1,533; average lunches served per month (January to July) – 1,755