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Vancouver Island charities see soaring demand for food and housing

Newcomers and students top the list as help struggles to cope with growing need
George Morrison climbs aboard a teacher’s pickup to load up the food the school community at Oak Bay High collected for the Mustard Seed’s food network. (Christine van Reeuwyk/News Staff)

Tanara Oliveira/News Staff

As Christmas approaches, charities across Greater Victoria are encountering a growing challenge – an increasing number of people in need of assistance.

This surge in demand for charitable support has placed a strain on local charitable organizations.

According to the Giving Report 2023, 57 per cent of charities find themselves unable to meet the current demand.

“This year has been more challenging than others for a number of reasons,” said Colleen Sparks, director of development with the Mustard Seed food bank. “There is an increase in demand. People are stressed, they are struggling, and we can see this when they are coming in to access our services. Our goal is to try to make them feel welcome and help how we can.”

Mustard Seed has broken down the numbers on what it distributes.

“We have distributed 27-per-cent more food via our food security distribution centre,” said Sparks. “In the summer we increased the number of youth we supplied with back-to-school kits supplies, shoes, gift cards for food by 20 per cent and registration for Christmas hampers is filling up quickly, with some organizations being full already, well ahead of normal.”

The Giving Report said 22 per cent of charities report that the demand for their services has soared to a level that significantly exceeds their available capacity.

The demographics are diverse, but newcomers and students at the top.

“We are seeing an increase in families, newcomers to Canada, and international students, although we have always had a strong mix of families, individuals, seniors, immigrants and university students,” said Sparks. “Even in 2022, we had begun to see an increase in the number of new food bank users being working families who were being impacted by rising interest rates.”

For Kristine Lerch, a director with Habitat for Humanity Victoria, even people with a fair income are looking for their services.

“We’re seeing even more people with higher household incomes inquire about our affordable housing. The definition of ‘low-moderate’ incomes has definitely changed,” she said.

To deal with this high demand, creativity and strong partnership are the key.

“We are doing our best to improve our efficiency to reduce waste where perishable items have been donated. We are also working hard to bring on more partners to increase the fresh farm produce that we collect and pass on,” said Sparks.

Donations are a big way to help and having more volunteers is a major goal. The Giving Report showed that 55 per cent of charities say they have fewer volunteers than before the pandemic.

“We’re being creative with how we manage our impact,” said Lerch. “We’re trying new funding sources and potential charitable partners. We’re also asking the province to chip in. We believe that the recent government announcements on funding for rental housing construction really just help investors who own rental housing and ignore working families.”

The weeks leading up to Christmas are vital for donations, said Sparks.

“We actually receive the vast majority of our donations in December and this year we are hopeful that even more people will be moved by the growing need in their community and make a donation, as every dollar counts. We appreciate food drives, however we want to share that with a cash donation we can triple the buying power because we purchase at wholesale costs,” said Sparks.

Habitat for Humanity has a Gingerbread Showcase that needs volunteers to help, so email

Mustard Seed also has a large event that needs volunteers aged 16 and older for the Christmas Celebration on Dec. 16, where they will feed and entertain 400 community members. As well, it is holding its annual gift-wrapping fundraiser at Mayfair and Hillside malls from Dec. 13 to 24.

READ MORE: Greater Victoria group stitches together relief from loneliness