In the coming weeks, the Vancouver park board will decide on a joint operating agreement for community centres across Vancouver that will set the course for how they operate for years to come.
As part of that agreement, each of the 22 community centres will have an appendix that addresses their unique issues. For the Strathcona Community Centre, the stakes are especially high, as the contents of that appendix will have a direct impact on hundreds of families and children living below the poverty line.
It should be no secret to anyone living in Vancouver that the Strathcona Community Centre serves the most vulnerable people in our city and, arguably, our country. For those who don’t know, we’re located in the Downtown Eastside, one of Canada’s poorest postal codes. We provide food services, child-care services, and recreational and cultural programs to a diverse population, many of whom are below the margins and scraping by each day.
Community centres’ primary roles are providing arts, culture and recreational opportunities for clients. But for people in our community, to participate in these programs, they need additional support. Our top priorities include providing meals to hundreds of young children and their families each week and ensuring those parents who can’t afford child care have it.
Every day, we prepare 120 breakfasts for children and their families before they go to school and then provide hearty snacks for the afternoon, often the last meal of the day for some of these kids. Every Friday, our staff and volunteers, with support from generous food donors, help more than 170 families access healthy food that they rely on to sustain themselves for the weekend. There are 150 kids in licensed school-aged, child-care programs; and 40 children in licensed preschool programs.
A full two-thirds of our clients simply can’t afford to pay full fees, and require subsidies. If we forced them to pay full fare, we would have to turn them away. Our board won’t do that, which means our centre doesn’t have the revenue-generating potential of other community centres. As a result, our board and staff spend the majority of their time fundraising. While we’re incredibly fortunate to have great supporters and we raise over $1 million each year, we barely break even and in some years, we’re in the red. And, as anyone will tell you, relying on donations for operating budgets is unsustainable and risky.
What does this all have to do with the joint operating agreement appendix? As part of our negotiations with the park board, we are asking the city for $200,000 annually to support our food-security program, pay for instructors and supplies (which our staff sometimes buy out of their own pockets) and to help provide subsidies to the two-thirds of our clientele who can’t afford to pay full fees.
Yes, it’s a unique request, but we are unique among community centres in Vancouver, which is why we have received letters of support from other community centres and over 30 local organizations.
Without stable funding, our programs are in very real risk of closing down, leaving hundreds of our most vulnerable individuals and families with nowhere to go. Community centres provide public services to the residents of Vancouver, but despite great efforts over the past several months, we have been unable to get assurances from the park board that they will support our request.
On Wednesday, the board held a public meeting to discuss the joint operating agreement before making a final decision. We are asking for the public’s support and, ultimately, the board’s support to ensure we can continue to provide stable and greatly needed services to some of the most vulnerable people in our country.