(THE NEWS files)                                Hope for Freedom Society manager Mark Foreman is ready to help drive people to church shelters.

(THE NEWS files) Hope for Freedom Society manager Mark Foreman is ready to help drive people to church shelters.

Homeless to find shelter in Maple Ridge churches

New Mat Program starts Thursday

Homeless people in Maple Ridge are going to benefit from Christian charity, as of Thursday.

Those without a place to stay will be able to get in a van at a prearranged pickup/dropoff point, get dropped off at a local church, fed and given a mat inside the church to sleep on for the night, fed a breakfast, and then sent on their way with a bag lunch.

And it will be available every night for at least February and March. The first month will be at Maple Ridge Baptist Church, then at Burnett Fellowship for March.

The Mat Program ran for nine years in the Tri-Cities, and Rob Thiessen of the Hope For Freedom Society touts it as a huge success in helping people on the streets there, as it would house and feed 30 people each night.

He said it was also good for churches.

“This stretched them, and put them out of their comfort zone, but I’m a church guy, and I speak church.”

He needs a third church to step forward for April, and said, “I’m going to go wherever I get traction.”

He said the churches will be offering $66,000 worth of in-kind donations for the three-month program. B.C. Housing is also being asked for funding for some shelter workers. It hasn’t been approved yet, but the volunteers are going ahead already.

The church volunteers are encouraged to engage with homeless people, which helps reduce the stigma.

“They feel a bit better about themselves, because regular people are being nice to them,” said Thiessen. “It went a long way to bringing down some of the myths and issues in Coquitlam.”

He said some members of the public had been against homeless housing initiatives in the Tri-Cities.

“Showing up with pitchforks and torches,” is how Thiessen described it.

He liked to challenge those who were most adamant to get involved by volunteering with the Mat Program, and some did.

He recalls one detractor of harm reduction programs serving meals, and the first guy he sat down and talked with was a former schoolmate.

Some people talk like the homeless are “another type of critter,” Thiessen said.

“These people are human beings.”

There will be 20 mats to start with in Maple Ridge. He said in Coquitlam the program started slowly, and soon was filled to more than capacity.

“Rumour had it the food was really good,” he said. “You get a bunch of church ladies and they’re going to make a good meal.”

No drugs or alcohol will be allowed in the churches.

“We know they’re coming in loaded, but they’re not bringing in their drugs or paraphernalia,” said Thiessen.

No walk-ups will be allowed – they must be picked up and delivered

It ran in Tri-Cities for six months from October to March, and helped provide shelter until the 30/30 Gordon facility was built there. Thiessen hopes to similarly fill a gap in Maple Ridge.

Former Maple Ridge mayor Ernie Daykin of Burnett Fellowship said engaging the community in helping people on the streets of Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows is important.

“We need to get away from some of the negative stuff that’s going on,” he said.

Burnett Fellowship has been active in helping the homeless, and a group of volunteers will make more than 2,000 sandwiches, and drop off clothing and these meals for local homeless people and in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Daykin said he has dealings with people who are 55-plus looking for housing at Maple Towers, run by the Baptist Housing Society of B.C. He sees people left homeless by ‘renovictions’ or ‘demovictions’ who find themselves migrating from eastward toward Maple Ridge as they try to find a place to live.

“But by the grace of God, there goes any one of us.”