When homelessness stares you straight in the face, sits in your backyard, invades your community, do you take action or ignore it? The City of Burnaby’s homelessness has been a growing concern for many years with the city having around 250 people homeless today, but not everyone notices. Wanda Mulholland, coordinator of the Society to End Homelessness in Burnaby saw the issue, and decided it was something she refused to turn her back on.
On first impression, Wanda’s welcoming voice and kind nature make her passion for helping the homeless look like something she must have always done or was born to do. However, she had to first make a change with her own views of homelessness before she became who she is today.
Born in Nova Scotia, Wanda first gained a bachelor’s in sociology before moving to Burnaby in her early twenties to then study and receive a degree in social work from UBC. She ended up being a mom to two kids, who are now adults. Outside of her work, she loves music, being outdoors, camping and decorating cakes.
She didn’t always plan to end up as involved with homelessness as she is today, but she believes the concern is a natural instinct. “It’s kind of a way of life. It’s what’s valued in your family, thinking about people who are less fortunate,” she said.
Before the Society, which was at first the Burnaby Task Force on Homelessness, was a reality in 2005, Wanda was struggling to find solutions to homelessness in her own Edmonds neighbourhood in Burnaby.
“There were street people everywhere. It was awful. In our backyard, our parking lot. My girls would be writing down a description of suspicious activity and I would be calling the RCMP on a regular basis,” Wanda said.
The issue escalated to a point where she was concerned for her family, so she decided to contact the Burnaby RCMP to speak directly with who was in charge of her neighbourhoods area. This led her to Sgt. Major John Buis, a call that changed both her mindset, and his.
“He said two things. One, he said it wasn’t a crime to be homeless and I did know that,” Wanda said. “The other thing he said was very smart, very wise. He asked me if I knew of any resources to help people in Burnaby because he did not.”
After doing some homework and research, she discovered nobody was talking about Burnaby’s homeless and there were no services available to help. This realization brought the concern beyond her own family.
The fall of 2004, Wanda met up with agencies and communities interested, this including John Buis and the Burnaby RCMP, and by January in 2005 the task force was formed.
Once she got to meet the people she was once afraid of, the fear disappeared. “It could be any of us. It’s just people, and people that have lived here longer than I have. So, I needed to do a real quick change in how I thought about all of this,” Wanda said.
Sgt. Major John Buis of the Burnaby RCMP arrived in the city in September of 2004 fresh off a nine month United Nation deployment in East Timor. Wanda’s concerned phone call was one of the first he received.
“I lucked into it. When I came to Burnaby, I was a district commander in that area. I had some knowledge of Burnaby but I didn’t know the issues that were going on since I had just arrived there and she opened my eyes to them,” Buis said.
At that point of time there was nothing in Burnaby to help, but the Society made accessing services needed for homelessness possible.
“Wanda’s done a wonderful job. I really respect the amount of time and energy she puts into this. She’s a true community spirited person,” Buis said. “She deserves a lot of recognition for what she’s done.”
Burnaby was once right behind Vancouver’s Eastside in terms of homelessness and people living on the street. With help from dedicated and kind hearted people like Wanda, the city looks a lot different today.
“[Wanda’s] now taken it to another level where our local governments, our provincial governments are watching what she’s doing. She’s given the society a legitimacy because of her background and her commitment to the project and homelessness,” Buis said. “She’s a hero.”
The Society to End Homelessness in Burnaby provides leadership and collaborative planning towards the reduction and resolution of homelessness in Burnaby. The Society identifies and addresses issues, fights for an adequate income and poverty relief, provides services and support to the homeless, and increases community awareness.
Photos: The Society to End Homelessness in Burnaby’s temporary office space. Photos taken by Wanda Mulholland.
The Society prides itself on their focus on keeping strength in their many partnerships. The Society is non-partisan, they are not aligned with any particular political party or any particular faith based organizations. The Society works actively with all elected officials of all three levels of government, with nine over arching faith religions and 27 specific faith communities.
Even though many victories have been seen through the Society, when one is invested in a social issue, it always comes with the possibility of tragedy.
Homelessness is something that effects people at their core with how they view themselves, others, and their home. There are issues of poverty, addiction, emotional, social and mental health issues and many other personal situations that can lead to homelessness. Sometimes people are unable to get out. Burnaby’s average age of a homeless person who has died is 42 years old, with over 34 people in Burnaby dying since 2006 due to long-term effects of poverty and homelessness.
“All of those people that have died speaks to our failure as a society to assist people. Not one of those people lived to be a normal age. Some of the people may have been housed when they died but they all suffered from the long term impact of extreme poverty and homelessness,” Wanda said. “People in their twenties and thirties, its absolutely tragic.”
Within the Society, Wanda has also seen many successful outcomes and been able to grow relationships with many of the people she has helped.
“I absolutely have learned more from my neighbours that are homeless than I have in being a social worker and being a parent,” Wanda said.
People who were once homeless have come back to Wanda to tell of their new lives. People have ended up being able to achieve things they couldn’t before like finding housing, going to school, getting a job and reconnecting with family.
“I’m very honoured to be able to have an opportunity to help people and it is extremely rewarding to hear that in spite of what we don’t have that people are able to improve their lives and to feel safe enough to share struggles and share successes as well. That’s what a caring community is all about,” Wanda said.
Going forward, Wanda has many hopes for Burnaby’s homeless and the Society. The number one task to keep working on is housing. Burnaby has no shelters or transitional housing for the homeless, forcing people to travel outside of Burnaby.
“We need to have that continuum of housing here for Burnaby citizens so that people don’t need to go to other communities and away from their home community to get the basics that they need to live a respectful life,” Wanda said.
Nothing ever happens in a community if people refuse to say anything. Wanda chose back in 2004 to take a closer look at something that needed assistance in her own city, her own streets. From that moment on Wanda has made the Society her life work, continuously working on helping others understand the problem to further the Society’s steps on resolving a problem that effects many.
“People deserve to have housing. It’s crucial that people have a safe, decent place to live where they don’t need to be concerned about lack of heat or privacy or bugs or rodents. It’s a basic need that we have and that’s outlined by the United Nations. It doesn’t get more basic than that,” Wanda said.
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