Story of the Human Exchange Society – a look back..

Twenty-three 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…the idea put forward by Stephen Glanville, first Chair of the Society, was that if people of different circumstances of life would share life’s gifts, then the world would be a more compassionate place and the gap between rich and poor would close.

This idea became the Victoria Human Exchange Society, a registered charity run completely by volunteers (including those who are homeless or unemployed 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 partnershipa 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 twenty-second 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—it 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 sharing 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  gifts, and the acknowledgment that people undergoing hard times are still worthy of unconditional respect, and have within themselves the ability to work through their problems, grow, and change if they are supported by a family of friends.

“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 seven houses: two  in Victoria, two in Sidney, one 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 acknowledgement 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-one 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 Jordan Lessick, 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  Human Exchange Society for providing a positive atmosphere for me to continue my life. Thank you.”

– Paul W., former resident


VHES, working together with other groups in Victoria, has  identified and compassionately addressed 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 ( contains their mission statement, as well as archived newsletters released every three months that detail the lives and progress of people living in each of the homes, such as that from Richard:

My name is Richard and I am living at Frances Thibeau house here in Sidney.

I just wanted to thank you all so very much for the opportunity to stay here and help me to transition into society once again. Over the past years I have been through a serious depression which culminated into checking myself into the hospital earlier this year. Knowing only too well how depression can  turn into addiction,  I have found a lot of help and the most gracious of aids to me was being able to move to Sidney and live in this house. I had been living in the salvation army for the past 6 years , working fulltime and paying my own way, surrounded by drugs, booze, thievery , fights, and almost any kind of trouble you can imagine. .To leave that behind has been one of the most healing things that has happened to me in years. The tranquility of this community and the peace I find within this house has been miraculous in my mind.

I just wanted to let you know what a change you are making in my life, even the civility of people on the street, and the good cheer, I had forgotten what that felt like. So with sincere  appreciation for this opportunity… I wish you and all in VHES–

happy holidays and a wonderful new year


            The VHES also has a Facebook page:


Contributions, donations, and volunteers are always welcome—and, indeed, are 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.”

Contact number:


Mailing Address:


Box 8534,

Victoria BC,

V8W 3S1

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>