A Revitalized UGM New Westminster Opens its Doors and Welcomes in Community
On a typical day at UGM New Westminster, community members have stopped in for a morning meal. The coffee station is popular, and the kitchen is serving up eggs, hash browns, sausages, and toast. Around the diner-style tables and colourful chairs, Outreach Workers greet people by name, and are ready to be a sounding board—or track down a new pair of shoes—for anyone who has need. The atmosphere is busy, but not rushed: if they like, people are welcome to stay in the space through to lunch. After breakfast service ends, one man sits in a corner strumming a guitar. Another takes a phone call.
What’s miraculous about this scene isn’t necessarily the calm or that close to a hundred people have been fed a warm meal on a chilly fall morning. It’s that, for over two years, gatherings like this one weren’t possible. “The COVID-19 pandemic was really hard on this community,” says Edith, Supervisor at UGM New Westminster and part of a six-person Outreach staff. “This is a population that struggles to connect with people to begin with. It’s also a population other people struggle to connect with. When we had to close our doors, they lost even more of their social interactions.”
During the pandemic, UGM New Westminster served takeaway meals and gave out essentials, but it wasn’t until this past September that they were able to reopen their communal spaces and reconnect with community members. “We’re really having to read the community, gauge how people are doing,” says Edith. “The last two and a half years have taken a toll on folks, so just being able to meet with them again has been so good.”
As they enjoy a return to in-person dining and casual conversations, people visiting UGM New Westminster have been welcomed into a fresh new space. The dining room has had a makeover, with new flooring, tables, and chairs making the room bright and uplifting. Light green and turquoise paint on the walls is topped by a flowing mural—painted by Edith—that features mountains, trees, and floating leaves.
“When people first came in, they looked around and were surprised, like ‘Whoa, they did this for us?’ And we did! One community member said, ‘This feels weird! It’s a good weird!’ And you know what, it feels weird for me too. Because there's so much newness, and it's not just the physical space. The feeling in the air is very different from what it was before COVID.”
Part of that change is that people in New Westminster are facing new challenges—and this means the UGM team has had to cast a new vision for what community flourishing could look like. “The biggest thing for us is making sure that we're filling a gap: we offer all the basics—toiletry items, clothing items, shoes—but we’re always asking what else people need,” explains Edith. “There are a few seniors, for example, who sometimes need help with making appointments or filling out forms. We have somebody from the Ministries Office who will be coming in on a regular basis to help folks apply for social assistance and crisis grants, and we have UBC dental hygiene students coming in to offer dental care. It’s about finding ways to remind people they’re human beings and deserve to have their needs met.”
Future plans at UGM New Westminster include a shower program, a haircutting station, and Bible studies. The team is also establishing a Mobile Mission based in New Westminster—a recent one-month pilot project saw the team truck visiting community members and building new relationships around the city. “The Mobile Mission is a very different way of reaching out to people—they’re allowing you to be in their space. You have to build trust. But I think something magical happens when people realize, ‘Oh, you’re not scared to come and be with me.’”
Edith hopes that this kind of deeper understanding can be established within the wider community of New Westminster. “It’s our hope to be a bridge builder in the community—because when you sit down and talk with someone and take the time to understand their story, something changes. They're no longer a stat, they're no longer some person that you want to remove from the sidewalk. Homelessness isn’t somebody else’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem.”
In the UGM New Westminster dining room, most community members have headed back out into the day. Edith and the team begin preparations for lunch. The space is quiet. But here—where people can be themselves and access life-changing support—there is endless potential.