The new executive director of the Salvation Army Ridge Meadows Ministries isn’t a stranger to the issue of homelessness.
That’s because Mark Stewart, who’s been in Maple Ridge for about a month, arrives with 13 years experience at the largest Salvation Army operation in the province of Manitoba – the Centre of Hope in downtown Winnipeg – which sometimes sees up to 500 people in one night.
Out of the 340 permanent beds, at the Winnipeg shelter, only 45 beds were for the emergency shelter, Stewart noted.
“So we focused on transition. We focused on the Housing First model, and we had a harm-reduction-principle-based model.”
The Winnipeg shelter also had a 24-bed LGBTQ shelter, the only such Salvation Army shelter in the world – and it also took in almost 300 refugee claimants last year.
While the issue of housing and homelessness are common across the country, Stewart said that different communities may have different approaches.
“It’s about community context,” Stewart said last week at the Sally Ann’s administrative office on 227th Street.
“I think that ending homeless … changes from community to community.”
The goal is the same, helping people, he said.
“How you get there, sometimes changes and I’m just learning what that looks like in this community.”
Whatever approach is followed, it requires working with a range of other agencies and government levels. “I think you can’t end homelessness by yourself. You need partners,” he said.
Stewart added that the Salvation Army feels like a cornerstone within Maple Ridge.
“I feel like I’m walking into a community that wants to help people and we want to be a part of that,” he said.
He replaces Darrell Pilgrim, who in September moved to Gibsons to take on the role of community ministries director for the Sunshine Coast.
Stewart knows that housing the homeless has been a controversial issue in this city, but adds that the issue is in many communities, across the country.
Before he tackles anything he’s going to settle in and become more acquainted with serving the people of Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows.
“This is not unique, what’s happening in this community. Addiction is happening across the country at many different levels and this is not something that’s unique to what I see.”
He said he’s not sure why Maple Ridge has been highlighted when it comes to homeless, so much, and said that rebranding is needed.
“What I do feel is there has been some conflict in the community and it feels like it’s plateauing a bit,” he added.
“If you’re homeless in this community, we should be finding a way to get you into a home,” Stewart said. “Housing should be a right.”
Stewart added that mixed housing is needed, interspersing people with a variety of needs throughout the community, rather than putting people with substance abuses issues all into one location.
For the next few months, he’s going to get to know his new surroundings before making any decisions.
“It’s still pretty early. I see a lot of really positive things that are happening in the community and I’ve only been here a little bit,” Stewart said. But he might have some ideas six months from now.
“We want to strengthen the partnerships we have.”