Feed the People returns this December, but instead of a meal shared by hundreds, COVID-19 restrictions have forced organizers to individually deliver food to those who need it most in Port Alberni.
Currently in its ninth year, the event has steadily grown since approximately 50 were given a Christmas meal in 2011. Last year Feed the People moved to the Alberni Athletic Hall for a larger venue, and the hall’s kitchen is again being used in 2020, although this time volunteers are not allowed to mix with the caterer. Following social distancing guidelines to lessen the risk of coronavirus transmission, Teechuktl Mental Health’s harm reduction team will pick up the 300 meals for delivery before noon on Dec. 9, with help from members of the Port Alberni RCMP detachment.
Using entirely donated food, the Teechuktl team already has a list of who they will be delivering to.
“They’re working on the streets, so they know, they know where people have tents set up,” said Teechuktl Manager Vina Robinson.
The event still follows the words of a former worker in Teechuktl’s Quu’asa program.
“Feed the People every year is for any at risk or homeless people in Port Alberni. It’s not just for Nuu-chah-nulth, it’s not just for First Nations,” explained Robinson. “This was the wish of the late Ray Seitcher. He wanted to feed the people of the Alberni Valley.”
For years the number of people showing up each December for a meal indicated the growing needs of Port Alberni’s homeless. But during the COVID-19 pandemic Feed the People’s organizers have seen additional struggles on the streets.
Stan Matthew, Teechuktl’s training and prevention coordinator, said the department’s staff have faced escalating needs in the small Vancouver Island city.
“They notice the increase in youth and other people coming into the Port Alberni area,” he said. “We know that it’s increased because we’ve increased our team. We’ve added a couple of team members to our harm reduction, so we know there’s a high need for supports.”
The homeless situation in Port Alberni has made headlines in recent weeks, when a tent settlement grew to up to two dozen inhabitants outside a Port Alberni Shelter Society facility in November. The tents were evicted by Island Health, but a settlement appeared in Roger Creek Park, which was soon disbanded by the city and RCMP.
Robinson has seen many who might have been transient or couch surfing in the past in a situation where they literally have nowhere to go.
“A lot of our people that have mental health issues - like extreme mental health issues - or even anxiety, this has gone through the roof with the pandemic,” she said. “So they’re transient, they’re floating about and they end up here in Port Alberni.”
Many First Nations have closed their communities to non-residents in an effort to keep COVID-19 out. But this has left more to seek refuge in cities like Port Alberni, said Robinson, who first saw this issue in the spring.
“The prisons were contacting me, because they were releasing prisoners early,” she said. “They were contacting me to see if these guys who were being released could go home, and the nations said no. So these guys have nowhere to go.”
The Teechuktl team normally tours the West Coast each December, bringing a meal and a night of Nuu-chah-nulth culture to people in Nanaimo, Campbell River, Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle. But these Urban Gatherings will not be held this year, leaving the mental health team looking for other ways to lighten people’s spirits. An online Urban Gathering is being planned, and holiday packages are being prepared for some of those who need to be uplifted as the pandemic continues.