It’s been an unprecedented time of anxiety for everyone. But, for Liz Barnett and others focused on addressing the needs of the less fortunate in our communities, these past few weeks have been especially stressful.

Barnett is the executive director of The Bloom Group, an organization that responds to the most urgent needs of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Housing approximately 600 people and serving 1500, the Bloom Group has led many of Vancouver’s most progressive social services to reduce homelessness, provide end-of-life care for individuals with mental health challenges and addictions and ensure women-led families in crisis can stay together as they rebuild their lives.

About to celebrate their 60th anniversary in 2021, the organization’s forward-thinking services include the first women-only shelter in Canada, the first free-standing hospice in the area (both opened 30 years ago) with 16 hospice beds dedicated to people in the neighbourhood. They also run the only adult guardianship program in the province that manages the income of low-income individuals no longer able to care for their own financial needs.

Many of the constituents in the community lack the basic things we all take for granted, says Barnett, including cell phones and credit cards. Living in the poorest postal code in Canada means they face barriers at every turn, whether with housing, jobs or healthcare. They often rely on kitchens, food services, libraries and schools for food and comfort. “It’s that much harder to maintain social distance in these circumstances,” explains Barnett, who adds that people already feel isolated and the current calls for physical distance only exacerbates mental health and other challenges.

But this past week Barnett received a generous $50,000 gift that is making her smile, despite it all. A group of community-oriented groups in the province announced the creation of the Community Response Fund — a special fund to rapidly deploy essential relief to organizations that provide frontline services to people and organizations that are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and its economic consequences.

As an early recipient of the Fund, Barnett says the grant will be used to re-establish a rent bank for tenants affected by job loss, develop accessible materials to ensure information about the pandemic is clearly communicated and support children and youth struggling with mental health issues. And she’s delighted by the timely gift. “The neighbourhood is extremely at-risk because of their living arrangements and poor access to help,” she explains. “This Fund was literally a lifesaver; we will get what we need.”

The Fund is made possible through the generosity of its Founding Donors: $1-million from Vancouver Foundation, $1-million from Vancity Credit Union, $500,000 from United Way Lower Mainland and $688,000 from anonymous individual donors to Vancouver Foundation. “We’re in this together as the coronavirus pandemic affects all of us,” says Tamara Vrooman, president and CEO of Vancity. “By coming together, we can ensure that our communities can support our most vulnerable, and this Fund will do exactly that.”

The group will evolve as the Fund grows and expands its focus. “This growing coalition of philanthropy, the private sector, governments, and individuals represents the very best of all sectors in BC,” said Kevin McCort, CEO of Vancouver Foundation. “British Columbians have a way of coming together to face challenges head-on — and that’s what we’re doing now.”

The first phase of grant recommendations will prioritize community-based organizations who are addressing:

  • Immediate needs of low-income populations caused by COVID-19 related closures, including access to food, hygiene, housing and other basic needs
  • The economic impact of reduced and lost work within the non-profit sector.
  • The information needs of among vulnerable community members to promote resiliency and mitigate fear and confusion.
  • Mobilizing citizens to assist their vulnerable neighbours with the challenges they are facing from isolation.

“People want to support one another during tough times, and we encourage them to participate in this unique initiative,” said Michael McKnight, CEO of United Way Lower Mainland. “By being nimble and responsive to the evolving needs of the crisis, the Community Response Fund will strengthen our community’s long-term resiliency.”

Funding will be offered as flexible operating grants that enable charities to maintain or expand services to vulnerable populations affected by quarantine, closures, shortages, access to services, loss of income, or other economic impacts. This funding is designed to complement the work of public health officials and expand local capacity to address all aspects of the outbreak as efficiently as possible.

“We are so appreciative of our partners’ initiative in providing support for the people most in-need during this difficult time,” said Mayor Kennedy Stewart, City of Vancouver. “Thank you to Vancouver Foundation, Vancity credit union and the United Way for coming to the table to help fund the community response. So many people are looking for ways to contribute right now, and this Fund is a great opportunity for the private sector, philanthropic organizations, and individuals to get involved.”

As for Barnett, the Fund’s impact is significant. “The money itself is a gift, literally a gift to the people we serve,” she says, adding that the week they heard the news was a really hard one, with no good news or coordinated responses from government or others. “To have the Fund come together in that way, for them to just reach out a hand and say, ‘Here, the community has got you’, I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, as a community member and leader,” she says. “They wrapped their hands around our folks; I’m so thankful.”

The Community Response Fund currently sits at just over $3-million. Partners in the Fund are calling on organizations and individuals to give now at:

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