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Our History

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The Lookout Emergency Aid Society was founded in 1971 to meet the needs of a growing number of homeless adults living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Gastown neighbourhoods.

Since its early beginnings the society has been a leader and innovator, adapting itself so it can better serve those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. One of the most recent changes at the Lookout Society is an amalgamation with Keys Housing and Health Solutions in Surrey.

In 2016 the Lookout Society now serves eight communities – Vancouver, the North Shore, New Westminster, Abbotsford, Burnaby, Maple Ridge, Langley, and Surrey –  being able to house 1,200 each night.

Snapshots of our history are provided below.

The Lookout Emergency Aid Society was founded in 1971 to meet the needs of a growing number of homeless adults living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Gastown neighbourhoods.

Since its early beginnings the society has been a leader and innovator, adapting itself so it can better serve those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. One of the most recent changes at the Lookout Society is an amalgamation with Keys Housing and Health Solutions in Surrey.

In 2016 the Lookout Society now serves eight communities – Vancouver, the North Shore, New Westminster, Abbotsford, Burnaby, Maple Ridge, Langley, and Surrey –  being able to house 1,200 each night.

Snapshots of our history are provided below.

From small beginnings Lookout established

In 1970 the staff at a youth hostel (Connolly House) identified a growing trend of older homeless men requesting beds. Not able to help because of age restrictions and finding no resources for these men, the staff members made an application to the federal government under a youth initiative program to establish a three-bed night-time only shelter in the area then known as Skid Row As a result, the Lookout shelter was founded in 1971.

At first they used street patrols to pickup shelterless people off the streets and deliver them to the shelter. We learned quickly these individuals, primarily the older chronic street alcoholics, required aid in sorting out their problems, accessing services and treatment and locating accommodation. Almost immediately 24-hour service was implemented to serve these men. Those three beds have increased over the years to the current level of 181 year-round beds in our four shelters, plus another 57 extreme weather shelter beds.

Mandated to respond to the needs of the community, Lookout developed into the safety net under all other services, catering to a wide variety of needs. When a person has nowhere else to go, they turn to Lookout. As services/resources became available or unavailable, the clientele of our service changed. With the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill, Lookout found increasing numbers of psychiatrically disabled individuals needing assistance. Currently, the second largest group of people requesting service have a mental illness.

The three levels of housing Lookout offers also emerged out of necessity. Lookout initiated permanent housing in 1978 because we couldn’t find other housing options for some clients. Then, when the society observed high rates of recidivism within the shelters and long shelter stays, we recognized that some people needed longer than a shelter stay to successfully transition to permanent housing.  As a result, we developed and purposely built transitional housing – where people would stay for two to three years.

First purpose built building

Recognizing that emergency beds, although essential, are a band-aid solution to homelessness, a long-term housing program was implemented in 1978. In 1981 we built our first purpose-built facility, housing both our original emergency shelter and adding new supportive long-term housing. The longer-stay housing was meant to be transitional, allowing people to stay longer to get their feet under them. Lookout's goal was to find permanent housing resources.

Despite the increase in beds (shelter increased from 25 to 40 beds and the new 39 long-stay units) we found ourselves turning away great numbers of people in both housing and programs as homelessness seemed to be on the increase. Emergency stays lengthened as resources became harder to find. Lookout no longer could afford the luxury of holding beds open until 2 a.m. for crisis situations. We could not move people from the tenancy program to other housing – it just did not exist.

Outreach program helps those in community

In an attempt to open up emergency beds, staff moved people into surrounding hotel rooms – knowing that such housing was inadequate for most. As a result, a high number of people began returning to Lookout within weeks or months. To address this, the Outreach Program was implemented in 1990 and staff hired to follow shelter residents into the community. Outreach staff provide, for a short-term period, the necessary support and services which enable residents to maintain their independent housing.

Our outreach team has a flexible mandate in order to ensure anyone falling between the cracks is served. Lookout also recognized the mentally ill, especially those who are homeless, were succumbing to HIV/AIDS faster than any other population the society served. As a result, Lookout developed a specialized outreach service and dedicated five beds at the Hazelton Residence for individuals who were mentally ill and living with HIV/AIDS.

The LivingRoom created for mentally ill residents

Lookout had long recognized the seriously mentally ill were unable to access housing, even when poverty was not a factor. Rooming houses with paper-thin walls were often the only home for the mentally ill on the Downtown Eastside (DTES). Making matters worse, they faced the highest eviction rates, resulting in the mentally ill being at highest risk of homelessness.

They were a group who utilized our shelters at the highest level of any other user profile. Frequently abused and with few supports, Lookout began creating services specifically for the mentally ill in the DTES.

To prevent the evictions and provide access to psychiatric services, Lookout, along with Barry McArthur of St. James Community Services and Ralph Buckley of Strathcona Mental Health, spearheaded the creation of a drop in/activity centre for the seriously mentally ill – the LivingRoom Drop In Centre opening in 1993 – providing a safe hangout for people to access treatment and get involved in activities.

Permanent housing provides longer term support

Also in 1993, after successfully arguing that people with disabilities can live independently if the appropriate community supports are in place, Lookout celebrated the opening of the Jeffrey Ross Residence, a 37-suite apartment block that specifically targeted the disabled. Most of the residents moved from the tenancy program providing a mini continuum of housing within Lookout, better enabling us to match the needs of the people with our most suitable housing.

Tenant selection was through volunteers from a number of neighbourhood agencies, based on our criteria of housing local people who had few, if any housing options. As a result, we were able to move people with repeated housing crises into our longer-stay housing, while people needing housing with supports could be waitlisted for the permanent housing. The Jeffrey Ross naming honours a beloved manager of Lookout – Jeffrey loved the people, the work and was dedicated to creating permanent housing. We vowed to keep up the battle to create more permanent housing options. The Ross immediately had a huge waitlist, with minimal turnover, and our shelter continued to be in high demand, with some people being turned away without housing, to sleep in the streets as there were no other sheltering options for them.

We were successful in gaining an allocation of housing units and, in April of 1996, we moved people in to the 67 suites of our new Jim Green Residence – the first social housing project in B.C. – to particularly serve people who have a chronic history of homelessness. This apartment building also included one unit specifically designed as an emergency back-up unit to the shelters in the area, particularly for the women’s shelters. The two-bedroom unit quickly became a resource for those inappropriate, as well as unable to, access other shelters. This included many individuals in varying family configurations. Immigrant and refugee families, disabled homeless, as well as men and/or women fleeing violence, sometimes accompanied by children have been housed in this unique and extremely useful apartment.

Shelter service continues to expand

helShelterlessness continued to grow to crisis proportions and Lookout determined that we could assist. During the late summer of 1995 a young, seriously ill man came into our shelter acutely ill from exposure. He died of pneumonia within six hours. This was the final straw in Lookout’s quest for another shelter, despite the knowledge that the shelter beds were not the solution but band aids. We actively initiated work towards a new shelter, co-located with secondary housing. In 1996 Lookout was able to open the Lower Mainland's first cold weather shelter, thanks to the Real Estate Foundation of BC. This winter shelter opened each year while we worked collaboratively with other service providers to create a new shelter service in Vancouver, this time outside of the Downtown Eastside, thanks to the hospitality of the Marpole community.

Our experience found people were being forced to come into the Downtown Eastside area to access services as the shelter and housing offered by ourselves and other local providers was unique and supportive. As a result, Lookout fought for shelters in areas where the homeless gathered and to also develop permanent housing for those without housing options.

In 2002 we were happy to open the Yukon Housing Centre, which provided 36 shelter beds, expandable to 71 in inclement weather. These shelter beds were matched by 37 transitional studio apartments. Lengths of stay in the studios are limited to two to three years, giving people with repeated housing crises a longer time to gain stability. The staff work with the residents to bridge into permanent housing that is affordable and appropriate for their needs. This development was the first shelter and housing with a flexible mandate to be established outside of the Downtown Eastside. It was immediately full and turning away people. Our waitlists continued to soar.

During the development of this new housing, we saw an influx of shelterless people coming from outside Vancouver. Many came because of the lack of flexible supportive shelter and housing elsewhere. Others still refused to come in, opting to live outdoors rather than leave the community they called home. Our outreach teams met many of these individuals, ranging from New Westminster, Burnaby, Richmond and the North Shore.

We actively campaigned in these communities to establish resources locally for the homeless. We were joined in this by the partnership that had developed over the establishing of the Yukon Shelter. Later known as the regional Cold Wet Weather Strategy and now known as the Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy, the collaborative approach was successful in that both New Westminster and the North Shore asked Lookout to establish services locally.

New Westminster: Heritage buildings used for housing

New In 2001 Lookout was able to purchase a 23-unit heritage rooming house in New Westminster known as the Cliff Block and renovate the building to provide 16 transitional housing units and seven permanent housing units. The Cliff Block Housing Centre is intended for local men and women unable to successfully live elsewhere in the community with few if any other housing choices.

In 2008, the Lookout Society, BC Housing, the City of New Westminster and various community groups partnered to establish a 15-bed shelter in the former College Place Inn. Renamed the Russell Housing Centre, it is also home to 40 permanent housing units.

The Rhoda Kaellis opened in 2010 and is intended to increase the affordable housing stock in New Westminster. It consists of 24 units – 11 transitional and 13 supportive units.

The North Shore: Community partnerships build shelter

Lookout Society, in partnership with the North Shore Task Force on Homelessness, achieved funding to build a shelter and transitional housing service in the City of North Vancouver. This came to be only through the significant support of the City of North Vancouver and the personal dedication of Mayor Barbara Sharp. Overcoming many obstacles, and with funding primarily from the Federal Government's Homeless Initiative (Supported Communities Partnership Initiative – SCPI) , Canada Mortgage and Housing, BC Housing as well as the City itself, 25 year-round shelter beds were opened on Jan. 7, 2005 followed by 25 studio transitional housing apartments being collocated and opened on April 6, 2005.

The generosity of local service clubs, businesses, individuals, neighbours and the Squamish Nation helped overcome a number of hiccups that still limited the full operation of the shelter at July, 2005. The North Shore Shelter now enjoys full operation. Thanks to the generous support of various groups, a training kitchen is being put into operation, with an employment program.

Surrey: Keys-Lookout amalgamation in 2014

In 2014 Shayne Williams, the former executive director of Keys Housing and Health Solutions in Surrey, took on the position of executive director of the Lookout Society. He immediately saw the need for a Lookout-Keys amalgamation so the larger society could serve those in need throughout the region.

In addition to the economy of scale, the Lookout Society benefited from Keys expetise in providing various programs, such as dental and healthcare, a high protein food bank for individuals with compromised immune systems and community living.

Keys opened in November of 1992, as Surrey Family Services Society. After 20 years, Keys delivers 19 programs, covering two areas of service: health solutions and homeless solutions. In November 2012 Keys held a rebranding gala resulting in the name change.

The health solutions portfolio encompasses a free medical clinic, non profit dental clinic, an onsite six-unit low-cost housing facility, women specific programming, a high-protein supplemental food bank, a community garden and a support lounge for individuals infected and affected with blood-borne pathogens including HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis. These services are funded by a contract through the Fraser Health Authority, Public Health Agency of Canada and through generous community donations and volunteers.

The homeless solutions offers a 24-hour drop-in facility and a year-round 40-bed homeless shelter. Keys also operates a daily meal program, outreach, corrections support, a housing program and a referral program for disadvantaged youth and a 11-bed male second stage recovery facility. This portion of the society’s programming is primarily funded through BC Housing contracts, Ministry of Social Development and SFCS Foundation.

In August 2012, Keys completed the Council on Accreditation (COA) to improve service delivery outcomes by developing, applying, and promoting accreditation standards in all of its programs.