About Community Engagement
Community Engagement is dedicated to building strategic partnerships and initiatives that further UGM’s mission: to transform communities by overcoming poverty, homelessness, and addiction one life at a time.
We work with like-minded partners in the community to serve, inspire, and catalyst change that betters the lives of our friends and neighbours. Our objective is to create connections between service providers, government, nonprofit organizations, and private citizens, bringing together all the integral members of the system and working towards creating collective impact.
Community Engagement organizes various events throughout the year that provide moments of connections, support, and fun for the community. Here are a couple of our largest events:
With the current affordable housing crisis, many low-income people struggle to find a place to stay. However, the barriers go beyond housing - people in the Downtown Eastside are often also facing issues such as lack of proper ID, needing eyewear, dental issues, and a myriad of other problems. When combined with finding a place to sleep every night, it’s almost impossible for a person to move forward.
UGM wanted to find a way to support the community, which developed into a “one stop shop” of services concept - UGM’s annual Summer Connect event.
We invite service providers and provide them with booths, and create a temporary, accessible space for the community. Guests who drop by are able to either receive the services they need immediately or be referred to the relevant organizations. Barbers on site provide free haircuts, live musicians play throughout the event, and a hot meal is served to all who come.
Each year, Summer Connect continues to grow as we support the community’s needs. At our last event in 2023, we hosted 33 service providers, served 1800 meals, and welcomed 2390 attendees.
UGM’s annual Summer BBQ is our largest celebration of the year, serving over 4,000 meals to families and members of the Downtown Eastside community. We gather at a public park for a carnival-style day of games, face painting, bouncy castles, delicious food, music, and, most importantly, relationship building. We also hire peer workers through partner organizations to provide employment opportunities for low-income individuals.
Summer BBQ gives our outreach teams the opportunity to connect with guests in a relaxing and joyous atmosphere, in a part of the neighbourhood they are familiar with. These conversations over a nutritious barbeque meal or a game of cribbage can turn into a new chapter for someone seeking support in recovery, safe and stable housing, or support for their whole family.
Community Engagement partners with other organizations to help put on community events and initiatives.
Help Portrait Vancouver, part of the global Help Portrait community, and UGM partner annually to provide studio-quality photographs for community members. Photographers, makeup artists, and hair stylists are brought together for a one-day event during the Christmas season.
People have the option to get their hair and makeup done, and then their photos are taken, edited, and printed on the spot. At the same time, there are children’s activities and hot chocolate served. Holiday music plays throughout, and the atmosphere is full with joy.
For some people, they are coming for their fifth year in a row for an annual family, couples, or solo portrait. For others, it is their first time seeing a beautiful, professionally taken photo of themselves. The day is full of smiles and even some tears of joy.
Homelessness Action Week
The City of Vancouver provides grants to organizations every fall to support events and projects that raise awareness of the issue of homelessness. As part of “Homelessness Action Week”, UGM has spearheaded programs including tours of the Downtown Eastside. We hired people from the DTES to work as tour guides and teach people about the community and area. We wanted people from Vancouver and beyond to understand this unique neighbourhood beyond what they see in the media and decrease stigma about the DTES area.
Another year, we created an educational escape room, Encounter, in partnership with EXIT Canada. Encounter revealed hidden barriers faced by people experiencing homelessness, and was developed alongside formerly homeless people. The experience allows participants to understand homelessness in a deeper way, and challenge their perceptions about homelessness.
Intersections: A Campaign About People was an immersive campaign that shared stories of individuals from across Metro Vancouver and their experiences with homelessness, poverty, and addiction. It invited people to learn about others whose lives may be similar to, yet incredibly different, than their own, and highlighted the similarities of the human experience that intersects us all.
Strategically placed QR codes that led to a landing page with these stories and information about homelessness throughout Metro Vancouver, and challenged people to vote with homelessness, addiction, and poverty in mind in the 2022 municipal election. QR codes were placed in strategic locations across the lower mainland, from high-traffic public spaces such as lampposts, community boards, and bus stops, to local establishments such as coffee shops, community centres, and libraries. At the end of the campaign, thousands of our QR codes had been distributed across five municipalities in Metro Vancouver, inspiring curiosity, and action for citizens in dozens of neighbourhoods. Intersections: A Campaign About People evoked empathy and a greater understanding that while each life is complex and nuanced, we are connected by the similarities of being human.
Community Advisory Committee
With the ever-changing nature of the DTES, including community members at the decision-making table is fundamental in understanding the community’s current needs and how to adapt our programs appropriately. It is also critical in ensuring inclusivity and restoring deciding power unto the community.
To integrate the practice of community feedback at UGM, we developed a Community Advisory Committee program. Committees are composed of people with lived experience, who discuss and provide direction on strategic planning and program delivery. Through the Community Advisory Committee, the community helps UGM become aware of any blindspots we may be overlooking, and shapes and informs how UGM programs will look like.
We work with Elections BC and Elections Canada to make voting more accessible for community members, including holding advanced voting stations for community members and working with other Downtown Eastside organizations to encourage people from the community to vote.
We also developed alterative options for valid ID, including prescription bottles and library cards, so that people who do not have formal forms of ID can still vote. The lack of formal ID is a major obstacle in the Downtown Eastside, as theft is common and the process to replace ID contains many barriers.
Many people who had never voted before were able to finally cast a ballot because of our initiatives. This change in the elections process had such a positive outcome in removing barriers and allowing more people to vote, it was adapted across Canada.
Resources Developed through Partnerships
No Vacancy Report
In 2016 and 2018, with academics, researchers, community organizations, and other key community stakeholders, Union Gospel Mission developed the No Vacancy Report that provided readers a point-in-time snapshot of the growing housing affordability crisis in Vancouver. Low-income families are faced with a stagnant supply of affordable housing options and low vacancy rates, contributing to an increasing level of unaffordability. The report focuses and brings awareness to the challenges low-income families encounter when trying to secure appropriate housing.
The public response to our educational escape room Encounter was so vast and positive, we believed other organizations and groups could benefit from the opportunity to provide a similar experience to their communities. We developed an Encounter “scaling” handbook, that explains the framework of creating an escape room on the barriers that come with being homeless, do’s and don’t’s, best practices, and additional information. The guide provides the tools for organizations to design an Encounter-like project that fits their capacity and budget.