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Homeless shelter in Nanaimo provides opportunity for change

NANAIMO - First Unitarian Fellowship church operating at 107 per cent capacity.
Kevan Griffith lays out blankets for clients of First Unitarian Shelter.

For roughly five months of the year, the basement of the First Unitarian Fellowship church provides a warm, comfortable place for the homeless.

Located on the corner Townsite Road and Millstone Avenue, it is a place where those less fortunate in life can get a good night sleep, something to eat and feel welcome.

“We accept everybody as long as they can get along with people for the night. They can be impaired or high. That said, there is no using and drinking here or on the property," said Kevan Griffith, the shelter's coordinator.

This year alone, the 24-bed shelter has already seen a total of 114 different individuals stay over night since it opened in late October, according to Griffith, who said the shelter is almost always at capacity every night.

"We are at 107 per cent capacity," he said.Unitarian's shelter employs a small, paid staff of four workers per night, some of whom were once homeless themselves. The workers do everything from cooking and cleaning to laundry.

The church also allows former and current guests the opportunity to volunteer at the shelter, provided that they’ve made a serious effort to become clean and sober.

“What I look for is people who have made that change and that they have dealt with their addictions and they’re clean and sober and willing," Griffith said. "Once they’re clean and sober, they can volunteer here during the evening.”

The cycle of drug and alcohol abuse is something Griffith can relate to. He’s a recovered alcoholic who was once extremely close to being homeless himself.

“I was a chronic alcoholic who was almost on the street,” he said. “I stayed sober and I raised my kids, but I was estranged from my family; I burned all those bridges." Shelter volunteers can eventually get hired on as a paid staff member according to Griffith, who said he would rather hire volunteers."Because they've had some experience here, they’re the people I want to hire because they know these people," he said. "The volunteers is where I get my staffing from a lot of times and they get the opportunity to start working here and getting paid."Griffith explained that it takes commitment and determination to go from being homeless and jobless to becoming a shelter volunteer and eventually a paid staff member. He said he also is very rigorous with the hiring process.  "There are a lot of things I take into consideration before hiring someone. I ask people in the community that they know well and I want some references, not old bosses, but of people that I know, too," he said.However, Griffith said often times its the employees with lengthy criminal records that end up being some of the best workers.

“They have a real sense of reality and a sense of how bad life can be. You’re not afraid of hell if you’re already been there,” Griffith said. “They’re also great role models because they have been there and it gives them an opportunity to give back and get paid for it.”At the the of the day, Griffith said it is enjoyable watching his staff and volunteers take pride in the work they're doing and the transition they've undergone to get to where they are today."I am happy for them and you can see how happy they are even after someone has been spitting venom at them all night and they want to quit, they're happy to have a job," he said "You learn a lot about yourself working at a place like this ... it kind of makes you realize that you did come a long way. It's not easy."

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