Alphie Rae ladles generous portions of soup into bowls for Teddy and Chris, the first two patrons to show up to the Watson Lake St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen. The two eat regularly at the nondescript building next to the Alaska Highway.
All three men are on social assistance. Without the soup kitchen, they would struggle to make ends meet.
In January, the kitchen served 235 meals and gave out 158 hampers of food – which can last about two weeks each.
It’s a service that Fred Statham and a group of dedicated volunteers have been providing every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for just over a year in a town that struggles with addictions and housing shortages.
“It’s a vital service that we’re providing. Every time I talk to the ministry (of Health and Social Services) they say it’s a duplication of services, but I think that over the last 15 months we’ve proved it’s a vital service, not a duplication,” Statham said.
But Patricia Living, a spokesperson for the department, disputes this. She said there is no record of a discussion about the soup kitchen, and that Statham was not told his work was a duplication of services.
“We did not feel at the time we had enough information to make a decision. If they are interested in doing outreach, they need to have a broader discussion with us,” Living said.
Most of the kitchen’s recent service was made possible by a hugely successful food drive over Christmas. Statham said they had help from the fire department, which knocked on every door in town asking for donations.
But now their cupboards are almost empty again and Statham said they’re looking for more help.
“We had $1,000 from the town of Watson Lake, and we’ve have some good private donations from the Yukon and from Ontario, where our priest is from, but it’s not enough,” Statham said.
Originally from Powell River, B.C., Statham is a quiet, humble man. He fidgets with his hands when asked to talk about himself, but beams with pride when conversation turns to his numerous foster children.
The son of a diesel mechanic, Statham spent 13 years as a teacher and two working as a counsellor. When his father passed away last November, “his dying words to me were, ‘Be your own man.’ To me, that means being a community activist,” Statham said.
That’s what Statham does now. This past fall he ran for mayor of Watson Lake, earning 31 per cent of the vote against long-time incumbent Richard Durocher, who was re-elected.
After the election, he refocused on the soup kitchen and helping Watson Lake’s needy.
The kitchen and food bank reside inside St. Ann’s Hall. What used to be a garage has been converted into a simple dining room and kitchen with a bathroom in the back. The table and chairs are surrounded on two sides by bookshelves heavy with Christian literature.
The food, what’s left of it, is piled in boxes against one wall. Statham says it’s enough for another couple of weeks, though that seems optimistic at best.
But food is only half the battle for Statham’s kitchen. He’s also been trying to set up a men’s shelter. Many of the soup kitchen’s patrons come from outside of Watson Lake. Some visitors walk from as far away as Upper Liard, 12 kilometres west along the highway, and many are intoxicated when they do.
“I am in the process of setting up a men’s shelter. Again I heard the same refrain, that it’s a duplication of services. And the person that I talked to in the ministry, her advice to me at the time was to continue to develop and grow the grassroots support, to develop that and come back. I’m ready to put forth another proposal,” Statham said.
Social Services did have discussions with Statham about setting up a men’s shelter, said Living. At the time, staff advised Statham that he needed to collect more information and put together a formal proposal, she said.
The town has a shelter for women and children, but nowhere for men to go when they need a place to sleep or dry out.
Essentially, said Statham, the government wants him to prove there is a need for a men’s shelter before they will consider funding for one.
“People are dying. The majority of our clients are from the Campbell Block,” Statham said.
The Campbell Block is a former motel that has been converted into single-room occupancy apartments for people with low incomes. Many in the building are on social assistance, and struggles with addictions are common. The building is a notoriously difficult place to live.
“They need more help than what they are getting. That’s why they’re here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” Statham said. He said he worries about clients getting caught outside in the cold, especially because many struggle with alcohol addictions. They need a safer place to go than back to the Campbell Block, he said.
Right now the soup kitchen is operating as a business, but Statham said they are hoping to become a registered society soon so they can start some serious fundraising drives.
“We’re guided by Matthew 25, verses 31-46, the same passage that was Mother Theresa’s favourite,” Statham said. Part of that passage reads: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
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