Karen O’Shannacery reflects on the Lookout Society’s 43 years of helping the homeless

Lookout Emergency Aid Society executive director plans to retire in June 2014

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      On the way to see Karen O’Shannacery, executive director of the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, at her office in the Downtown Eastside, I pass bodies huddled in doorways, a couple of drug deals in progress, and people selling old VHS tapes and clothes spread out on dirty sheets on the sidewalk. It’s an area burdened with poverty and addiction, and it can be hard to notice much else while walking through.

      O’Shannacery’s office is about a block away from the Lookout Society’s busy downtown shelter. She answers the door with a smile. It’s a Saturday, and she’s been working since 10:30 this morning. In addition to being the executive director, she was actually one of the founders of Lookout—an organization that provides around a thousand beds every night to Vancouver’s homeless population (some in drop-in shelters and some in longer-term supportive and transitional housing) as well as a host of other services aimed at providing minimal-barrier assistance to homeless and at-risk individuals. Minimal-barrier assistance is a cornerstone of the Lookout philosophy; it means placing a minimum number of expectations on those seeking support, to ensure services can be accessed by whoever needs them. In 2011, she was appointed to the Order of B.C. for her work here.

      O’Shannacery makes us each a cup of Earl Grey tea before we sit down. She seems excited to talk about her work. She’s retiring in June 2014 and has been reflecting a lot lately on her 43 years with the organization. Out the window of her modest ground-level office, I can see people bundled up against the winter chill walk past, coming to and from the nearby services: shelters, kitchens, and drop-in centres. Lookout has a number of locations in the area, many clustered in the blocks just north and west of Oppenheimer Park.

      She ran away at 14, she tells me, to escape from the poverty and conflict in her home (her father was an alcoholic veteran, prone to violence). After wearing out her welcome on the couches and floors of various friends in Richmond, where she’d lived with her family, she spent some time in Vancouver before going hitchhiking, making it as far east as Toronto and as far south as San Francisco. “It was a fabulous time in many ways,” she says now, looking back on it. “I slept in some of the best parks across the country,” she adds, half-jokingly.

      She recalls one experience with particular fondness. Hitchhiking across the Prairies, she was picked up by an older couple. They told her to call them Mom and Pa, and asked about her life and how she’d come to be on the road. They didn’t seem to have much, but when they stopped to eat, they fed her too, and bought her clothes and a jacket before dropping her off in Winnipeg with a hundred dollars (a lot of money in the mid ’60s). O’Shannacery glows as she shares the story. The experience clearly resonated with her, and she was touched by the couple’s generosity—how they saw someone in need and gave a hand, expecting nothing in return.

      After returning to Vancouver, she gravitated to Skid Row, now known as the Downtown Eastside. This was, she says, the time that she really came to know what poverty was all about. She slept in parks. She knew it was important to stay invisible, as she was under the age of majority, and could be thrown into juvenile detention if she got into any trouble. She had heard stories that it was not a safe place, but she was determined to stay independent and free, and not to return to the unpleasant home life she’d left behind. She picked up tips for survival from people she met on the street, who were generous with their advice. She found ways to survive. “I would go into a restaurant and I would order a cup of hot water,” she says, “and they used to have ketchup bottles on the counters at the time, and so I would put the ketchup in the hot water and make myself some tomato soup.”

      O’Shannacery spent years on the street. She describes herself at this stage of her life as an “angry young woman”, growing more and more upset with what she was seeing around her. Services for the homeless and the disadvantaged were almost nonexistent, and there was a large amount of prejudice against the homeless, sometimes spilling into violence. “There used to be a walk between two hotels that were on Powell Street. The Powell Crawl we’d call it. One would happen to close before the other one, and so people from the one bar would traverse down towards the other. If you happened to be homeless, and you were in a doorway or on the street between those two hotels, you’d be beaten up, you’d be kicked, you’d be really, really brutalized.”

      She made money however she could, for a while selling issues of the Georgia Straight in front of the Bay on Granville. Or later on, she admits, selling drugs. She eventually worked up enough cash to get an apartment of her own. “I had my younger brother move in with me for a few years, as a matter of fact. And turned it into a flophouse, because I didn’t want anybody to be sleeping outside.”

      In the fall of 1968 she got a phone call from Mike McKenzie, a friend she’d met through the shared trials and tribulations of surviving on the street. He’d gotten a job, he said, and wanted to offer her a position at a youth shelter called Connolly House, operating from an old church at 5th and Columbia, doing outreach work to try and help young people avoid the same difficulties she’d faced in the very recent past. She was 18 at the time. She accepted, but the job proved to be a disappointment. Most of the youth coming through the shelter weren’t interested in talking to her. They were mostly kids travelling and having fun before going back to their parents, not the at-risk people she had come to know and care for during her time in the area.

      Given how unsatisfying the work was, O’Shannacery made projects for herself, such as a survey of drug users, interviewing addicts as they waited in line for methadone, trying to figure out why they were using and what it would take to get them clean. She had a drive to help those she’d met during her time on the streets, but saw the system continuing to fail them, so she wanted to go to the source and find out from the addicts themselves what kind of help they required. She still remembers the list of recommendations she came up with, many of which sound like the principles currently in practice at Lookout: they wanted somewhere safe and non-judgmental, somewhere that would be patient and continue to support them when they fell prey to the stumbling and occasional setbacks that often punctuate recovery.

      She also noticed the long lines of mostly older men waiting out back at the youth shelter every day, desperate for but unable to receive the help that the youth passing through weren’t interested in, as the shelter could only serve those under 21. They snuck food out to them through the back, but couldn’t do much more. But despite her dissatisfaction with the work, it’s clear her time there had an impact on her, and the lessons she learned continue to be central to her thoughts on ending homelessness: if you erect barriers, those who need help the most will often suffer, and if you want to know how to help those in need, you need to actually talk to them.

      She and John Albro, a coworker at the shelter, managed to get a six-month grant from the government to help house the homeless not being served by the current services, like the older men waiting out back of the shelter every night. “You know, we figured if we got the grant, we’d be able to cure homelessness in 10 years!” she says, and laughs.

      They hired six men and six women, and in January of 1971, began renting a room every night at the Hotel Patricia, an East Hastings single-room-occupancy hotel only a few blocks from O’Shannacery’s current office. They called it the Lookout Society, because they wanted to “look out” for the people on the street. O’Shannacery was finally doing the type of work she’d hungered for while working at the youth shelter.

      They would send teams out in pairs to wander through the Eastside, find people sleeping in alleys and on benches, and bring them back to the single room at the Hotel Patricia, whose two beds, one cot, and floor would be filled nightly. They’d try to beat the police on their rounds and get people back to the hotel before they could be picked up and thrown in the drunk-tank. Sometimes they’d arrive at the same time and arguments would ensue over who got to take them. Those being fought over were often oblivious.

      Eventually Lookout outgrew the hotel room at the Patricia, and moved into a one-bedroom apartment above the steam baths on East Hastings. From there it moved into a two-bedroom apartment at the same location, and then to a 13-bed house across the street. They rented a bank of hotel rooms in the Anchor Hotel at Alexander and Columbia, and ran a shelter from there. That also proved too small, and they moved again to 324-1/2 Powell Street (“the half meaning it was upstairs”), a location with 40 beds. By the end of the ’70s, they had actually received a large government grant and purpose-built 346 Alexander Street, the busy shelter I passed on my way here. Now Lookout Society operates over 20 locations (more than a dozen in the Downtown Eastside alone) spread over four municipalities, and provides beds to around a thousand people a night. Their focus is on providing minimal-barrier services, unlike what was available during O’Shannacery’s time on the street in the ’60s and ’70s, when finding assistance was fraught with obstacles, and often a one-chance-only opportunity if you were lucky enough to find it.

      When I ask if they’ve faced many difficulties over the years, she just breaks out laughing. There have been many. She remembers one time in particular, when the government had been repeatedly promising funding but failing to deliver. Lookout Society was running on fumes, and there were worries that if they had to shut down they may never recover. O’Shannacery, however, heard that the minister in charge of approving their funding, Grace McCarthy of the B.C. Social Credit Party, was going to be in Vancouver for a press conference—albeit one wholly unrelated to homelessness in the city, let alone Lookout’s finances. Fortunately, Lookout had an angry young spokesperson to intervene. She laughs as she tells the story now. “I figured, ‘There’s nothing left to lose.’ So I busted in, and in the middle of the press conference I did my advocacy piece. And the media picked up on it and they ran some stories, and we got our funding.”

      O’Shannacery has seen more than her fair share of tragedy, and it can be disheartening to hear not just how much damage addiction and poverty can wreak on human lives, but also just how apathetic and cruel society can sometimes be to its most vulnerable members. She recalls once calling an ambulance for an inebriated man who was injured in Oppenheimer Park. The paramedics arrived some time later and once they realized the call was for a homeless alcoholic, refused to enter the park, forcing O’Shannacery and her teammate to drag the man to the edge before they would look at him (four years later, the injured man in the park was actually hired by Lookout). Such instances of prejudice were common, and service-providers were often apathetic or hostile towards the homeless.

      “People were sleeping inside the dumpsters, so we had a number of people who were dying regularly because they’d be crushed when the dumpsters were emptied.” It’s almost impossible to keep track of the number of deaths she mentions, including a 10-year-old who had run away from home when she feared her father, an addict, was going to start prostituting her. “I tried to talk her into coming in off the street, tried to help her. She was more afraid of her father than what could happen to her. She was killed.” She says it sadly, but also with the sort of matter-of-fact tone of someone very familiar with tragedy. She says later almost everyone she knew from her time on the street is now dead.

      Despite years of hunger and poverty, seeing death firsthand, and dealing with widespread apathy and hostility towards people on the street, her outlook remains positive. She still has hope that homelessness can someday be eradicated, and she’s full of uplifting stories of incredible generosity and inspiring reversals. She recalls one Christmas when a man came into the downtown shelter and handed her a cheque. He told her he’d been one of the nasty, unappreciative drunks she’d taken in some time before. Lookout had given him somewhere to stay, and she’d encouraged him to go to detox. Since then, he had turned his life around and was married with kids. He’d been driving by every Christmas for a number of years, too afraid or ashamed to come in, and this was the year he’d finally mustered the courage. “He was somebody who everybody had written off, and he had written himself off. He had thought he’d never survive. And so he had to come in and had to share that he had done all this. And he’s convinced that Lookout saved his life.”

      Reflecting on the warmth and generosity she’s witnessed here, she’s beaming. A far cry from the “angry young woman” she described at the beginning of her story. “We have people who stay in our shelters, who will come over to the office here and turn in $5 towards the services. And $5 to you and I may be nothing, but when you’ve only got, you know, a little bit of money, $610 or $680, that five dollars can mean a meal, a meal for even a couple of days if you’re wise with it. They are generous....People feel accepted here, people feel welcome here. And they help each other a lot. It’s a very warm, caring community for people who are down in this community. And rarely does that ever, ever get reported by anybody.”

      When asked for her thoughts on what led to Vancouver’s homeless problem, she states confidently: “In one way it’s really complex; in another way it’s really simple. The federal government up until 1992 was part of the solution to homelessness—the housing supply program. They helped to reduce homelessness, because they gave money to build shelters, to build affordable housing. In 1993, they got out of that. They no longer supply housing.” She notes that in 1993 Lookout began having to turn people away for a lack of beds—the same year that the federal government axed its National Affordable Housing Program. A variety of other factors are involved, such as the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in the Lower Mainland in the ’80s and ’90s (“a good thing”, she emphasizes, but one that left many individuals without anywhere else to go), but the key, she says, is housing. “The first thing you need is a home, and then you can get everything else.”

      Before I depart, we discuss O’Shannacery’s upcoming retirement. She has mixed feelings about it. “The thing I hate the most is that I won’t be able to come back and volunteer at Lookout, at least for a little while. It’ll be someone else’s baby.” But she knows that she isn’t done entirely with her quest against homelessness yet, so will have to find some other capacity to help. She mentions, among other things, possibly helping Lookout tenants with the gardening, as well as continuing to fight for a transit plan for the homeless. That will have to wait though. First, she’s going on a cross-country RV trip with her husband. She never managed to get further east than Toronto when she was hitchhiking, so she looks forward to seeing the East Coast. After that, they’re treating themselves to a trip to Europe. “And I have a brand-new granddaughter,” she adds. “She actually just turned a year old. So she’ll help keep me busy as well.”

      I walk back through the Downtown Eastside after leaving O’Shannacery at her office. It’s still hard not to see the poverty, the addiction, and the social problems plaguing the streets here. But passing the Hotel Patricia, at East Hastings and Dunlevy, where Lookout began in a two-bed hotel room 43 years ago, it’s hard not to think of the charity, the humility, and the overwhelming generosity coursing just beneath the rough exterior of the Downtown Eastside, even if it does hardly ever get reported.



      Shayne Williams

      Dec 13, 2013 at 3:44am

      Karen, you are amazing. Thanks for everything you have done for the community's most vulnerable people.

      Georgia Straight, great article.

      Congratulations Karen

      Dec 13, 2013 at 9:43am

      Thank you for your service to the people of Vancouver.

      Karen Thomas

      Dec 14, 2013 at 2:09pm

      Your years of dedication and kindness at Lookout
      has given you great recognition, but upon reading
      and learning more
      I did not know the scope of what is was all about.

      It’s about you Karen.
      The hardships that you survived, the trauma,
      the devastation around you and in you.

      You are a survivor and you are on this earth
      to make a difference.
      And that you have.

      I wish you luck and enjoyment in the next chapter in your life, another adventure to create
      and happy memories that will last your life time.

      Karen Thomas

      Peggy Hunt

      Jun 25, 2014 at 12:25pm

      It has been a pleasure to get to know and work with you on the issue of a regional homeless transit plan. You have made such a difference to so many.

      Look back with pride on what you have accomplished personally and professionally, and look forward with a new vision of what the next chapter in your life will be. Enjoy the next leg of your journey Karen, I'm sure our paths will cross again. Take care,

      Peggy Hunt