Amber Sandford sits in her bedroom with her binder and computer after working on her English homework. Amber has been assisted with her housing needs by the Victoria Human Exchange Society. The philosophy behind the society’s often misunderstood moniker is that every exchange between people is valuable. Its name derives from the Thomas Merton quote: “Every meeting of persons is an exchange of life’s gifts.”

Victoria Human Exchange turns 20

Society relies almost solely on donations and hardcore volunteers

Every few minutes, the hum of Linda’s cellphone vibrating against the table glass interrupts her words. From morning until night and all hours in between, Linda answers calls from some of Victoria’s most vulnerable and marginalized people.

Linda – whose last name is withheld to protect her privacy – had planned to retire from banking and spend more time with her seven grandchildren when she first heard about transitional housing providers, the Victoria Human Exchange Society. Six years since the 65-year-old thought she was signing up for a volunteer job “stuffing envelopes,” she sits at the kitchen table of Edith Gulland House in Saanich, the women’s home where she lives and volunteers as a facilitator.

“If someone calls at 1:30 in the morning needing to talk, you’re darn right I’m going to listen,” says Linda, also the chairperson of the society. “I’ll grab a nap tomorrow afternoon. That person needs me now. If I don’t talk to them, how do I know they’re not going to hang up the phone and commit suicide or relapse?”

Linda is proud to volunteer for the society that has largely flown under the radar since its inception in 1992, sparked by the death of a homeless man beneath the Johnson Street Bridge. Now, on the society’s 20th anniversary, Linda’s reaching out.

“Closing a house is just heart breaking … but if we don’t get some help soon, we are going to have to close a house and it will be this one. The cost of everything’s going up and donations are going down.”

The Victoria Human Exchange Society has a monthly operating cost for rent and utilities of about $20,000 – the same amount the society receives annually from a provincial gaming grant.

With so much reliance on donations, the society’s eight houses – including three in Greater Victoria and locations in Nanaimo and on Salt Spring Island – currently operate month-to-month. Volunteers are often picking up the bill for household necessities, Linda says.

Making a strong case for transitional housing is Amber Sandford, who’s spending this morning studying in the bedroom she rents at Edith Gulland House. The exact location of the home is confidential due to security issues for the clients.

Sandford, who’s all smiles and jokes from behind her laptop, has been that person in need of an affordable, non-judgemental place to stay. At 35, she’s spent the majority of her years entrenched in substance abuse and the sex trade. After a year-long stay at the four-bedroom Edith Gulland House, with Linda at the helm, Sandford is 18 months clean and sober, completing her dogwood and planning her next step in education. This month she will leave the house to live on her own.

“I came from nothing,” says Sandford, whose time at the house lasted about nine months longer that the average stay. “I was a junkie hoe and within the year I’m going to be a Grade 12 grad going to Camosun (College). Where am I going to be five years from now?”

Sandford attributes the positive changes to a support team comprised of Narcotics Anonymous members, her father, and Linda – who she admires for her complete intolerance of alcohol, drugs or theft in the house.

“This has given me a place where I can afford the rent. It’s given me a safe, clean place. I can do my homework and go to my 12-step meetings and work on myself and getting ahead so that I can be a productive member of society.”

Any money donated to the society goes toward the basic costs of providing the housing, from the $400 in rent each resident is expected to pay if they can, to other necessities, at times, such as food and feminine supplies.

The contributions, no matter how modest, have a measurable effect, Linda says. Some who have benefitted from the housing continue to support its work through contributions of $10 and $15 cheques monthly.

In two decades of operation, the Victoria Human Exchange Society has sheltered 400 people referred to them by emergency housing and shelter providers, including the Cridge Transition House and the Sandy Merriman House, an emergency shelter for women run by the Victoria Cool Aid Society.

Brianna Cook-Coates, emergency support worker at Sandy Merriman says the independent nature of the accommodation is often what women are looking for.

“The clients are self-sufficient and looking for community and it appears that the houses provide that,” Cook-Coates said. “The clients we’ve referred have had trouble finding housing like that and when they’ve had it, it just seems to fit.”

The Human Exchange provides housing for about 90 per cent of its applicants, with an average of 40 people housed at any given time, who will leave when they have found long-term stable housing. There is a wait-list, but it doesn’t get in the way of an emergency stay.

“I’ve never turned anyone away from my door,” Linda adds.

To give to the society, or to learn more, visit humanx.org.

nnorth@saanichnews.com

 

 

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