Island Catholic News Article printed last year.

History of the Victoria Human Exchange Society

Twenty years ago, a homeless man by the name of Larry Baker died under the Johnson Street Bridge. In a gathering following this tragedy on Valentine’s Day, 1992, a service was held in Larry’s memory—and the seeds for an idea were sown.

This idea became the Victoria Human Exchange Society, a registered charity run 100% by volunteers (including those who used to be homeless themselves) working not just to tackle the issue of homelessness, but to eliminate the loneliness, isolation, and sense of hopelessness that comes along in such a time of crisis and vulnerability.

The idea was a partnership—a network of support and sharing between those that need help, and those who wish to support them:

“What was heard from the people who were Larry’s friends was that when one is homeless, one loses one’s individual identity; one is labeled and segregated from the rest of the human race. Gifts are lost; people are depressed and turn to drugs and alcohol for consolation and to drown their hopelessness and helplessness. The request was that someone start treating people who are homeless as human beings with personal identity and gifts to share.”
– VHES History of the Society

Now in its twentieth year, the society has proven time and again that it is one of the most effective and lowest-cost solutions to the homeless problem, having assisted hundreds of people in need—and yet, is facing desperate times itself. As a completely charitable organization run by volunteers, the funding battle begins year after year, and the society’s goal is threatened by a lack of the support it relies on: the cycle and exchange of gifts.

The name of the society comes from the writing of Thomas Merton: “Every meeting of persons is an exchange of life’s gifts.” This sense of exchange is the key to the society’s goals: the sharing of identity and gifts, and the acknowledgment that these people undergoing hard times are still worthy of unconditional respect, and have within themselves the ability to work through their problems, grow, and change.

“It is the absence of human contact that is often the deepest pain felt by homeless people. They can go for days with no one speaking to them, much less ask the simplest of questions, “How are you?” We fear the answers . . . because we might have to act on them.”
– Sister Maureen, in an article by Colman McCarthy

The society believes that when people find themselves in a crisis such as having lost a job, a home, a family, or are trying to recover from addiction or illness, what they need more than intervention is a family of friends: people who will listen, support, assist, and understand.

And so, the society has set out to:

• provide and support shelters and family-type emergency housing;
• provide advocacy and support to low-income persons who are working to solve their own legal, health, educational, employment and social problems;
• include impoverished persons in the decision-making capacity of the
Society, and to support initiatives which they themselves identify, thus enabling the growth of self-esteem and self-direction.

To this end, the society rents houses from sympathetic landlords to provide short-term accommodation for those in crisis. It currently operates eight houses: three in Victoria, two in Sidney, two on Salt Spring Island, and one in Nanaimo—all named after people who have contributed to the success of the movement over its twenty-year history.

Rather than administer or control the houses, the society “facilitates a dignified and ordered living environment.” These safe houses are free of drugs and drinking—everyone in the houses must be clean—and form a network where those in need can find a roof over their head as they move toward obtaining permanent housing. They also provide a sense of companionship, understanding, and trust, the acknowlegement that they are not alone in their plight, and there are others both in their position and outside of it hoping that they will succeed.

And, it is clear they have. Over these twenty years, VHES has helped provide a stable, caring environment where hundreds of people besieged by homelessness, illness, and addiction have been able to overcome their issues and move on:

“In my time of greatest need, this society came to my rescue. My life has improved dramatically as a result of the continuing efforts of Patricia Fitzgerald, the Society’s Facilitator here on Saltspring Island. I am working again and free from the problems which so plagued me, thanks to her.”
– Gordan C., former resident

“A NEW START is what the Victoria Human Exchange Society has provided for me—a safe place to live and an opportunity to get some help . . . But most of all the VHES has given me the chance to be there for others who are struggling with life.”
– Derrick N., former resident

“I would just like to sincerely thank the ladies of the Human Exchange Society for providing a positive atmosphere for me to continue my life. Thank you.”
– Paul W., former resident

The society provides what is, in many cases, a neglected set of needs in the process of healing, and rehabilitation: friendship, companionship, trust, and appreciation. The acknowledgement that, no matter the circumstances, all humans have gifts that must be allowed to flourish, and it is through the exchange of these gifts that we all become better people.

Among the society’s list of specific activities in 1992 and ongoing were:
• the facilitation of milestone celebrations and arranging social activities which build a network of friends;
• supporting places of healing and rehabilitation in the Gulf Island where street people who are alcoholics can remove themselves from their drinking network;
• assisting unemployed homeless persons to find employment and improve their standard of living and self image;
• providing advocacy to persons dealing with the legal system and those who have specific health problems or social & personal needs;
• educating persons who are substance abusers on its effects on the user and unborn children;
• many more initiatives specifically aimed at supporting, respecting, and appreciating the life of each person they work with.

Between the Society’s eight homes across Victoria, Sidney, Salt Spring, and Nanaimo, as well as the generalized efforts brought forth by all volunteers, the various members of the Victoria Human Exchange Society have worked tirelessly over the years and remained dedicated to their goal of, in their own words, “a partnership of human beings—all with gifts, weaknesses and addictions—supporting one another and growing together towards a healthier community.”

However, despite its successes, keeping the project running takes more resources than are often available. The society receives no government funding, relying on donations and the hard work of volunteers to continue to expand—or even to keep providing what is currently offered. There is a waitlist of people wanting to become part of the program, and plenty of opportunity to open more houses, but no funding with which to do so. This has stretched the program to the point where one of the much-valued women’s houses may be closed, giving the women that live there little choice but to face the possibility of returning to the streets.

VHES, working together with other groups in Victoria, has led the way in identifying and compassionately addressing the human needs of the homeless: listening to their stories, following their suggestions, and supporting their own efforts to get back on their feet—and it is through the compassion of others and the willingness to give and receive that they have been able to do so.

For further information on the Victoria Human Exchange Society, their website (http://www.humanx.org/) contains their missions statement, as well as newsletters released every three months that detail the lives and progress of people living in each of the homes:

“We presently have a woman who has gone back to school, after years of living a harsh lifestyle; and, I am proud to say…she is in the top 3 in her class.”

“I run into past residents, or receive phone calls from them; and, it always does my heart good to see the positive changes in them and to hear how their lives have changed for the better.”
— Linda, from the Edith Gulland House

The VHES also has a Facebook page. Contributions, donations, and volunteers are always welcome—and, indeed, the key to the society’s continuing success.

“As our first occupant Art Rosette hoped: may the spirit of the Human Exchange spread throughout the world so that no-one is left with only a tree under a bridge.”

Victoria Human Exchange Society
Box 8534
Victoria BC
V8W 3S1

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