By Chris Hibbard - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on December 20, 2023.
Almost 35 years ago, a few local ladies began driving the streets of Lethbridge in a bus, bribing down-and-out individuals with cigarettes if they would attend church on Sunday.
One of these ladies was Julie Kissick who, along with her husband Ken, became founders of the Victory Outreach Church. Fast forward to 1989, when Victory Church became a not-for-profit, faith-based organization known since as Streets Alive.
“Our previous location was on 1st Avenue and was a shelter and drop-in centre, back in around 1996,” said Cameron Kissick, son of Streets Alive’s founding couple and its current Chief Operations Officer.
“Back then, we were the first shelter operator in Lethbridge, open 24 hours a day, and maybe five or six people stayed over each night.”
By 2002, when Streets Alive stopped being Lethbridge’s shelter, they were seeing more like 40, Kissick said.
“And now, the shelter downtown probably has more like 300 every day.”
Kissick believes that issues related to major world events in recent years, current economic issues and the COVID years certainly made the issue of homelessness worse than it was before.
“At its core,” Kissick said. “Streets Alive has always been a Christian church organization founded on the beliefs of meeting and helping people where they are at.”
The organization will be appealing to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board on Thursday at 5 p.m. in City Hall a stop order issued by the City of Lethbridge which is effective next August 9.
The City, said Streets Alive in a press release, has directed it to apply for new permits at its location – 323 4 St. S. – which is zoned Religious Assembly.
Streets Alive believes it’s operating within its permitted uses.
“Are we a church? Are we a charity? Are we a treatment centre? Each of these different organizational models are expected to have their own credentials and paperwork, to put it simply,” said Cameron Kissick in a recent interview.
At their downtown location, Streets Alive provides services to people in need. These services include the PIN Bank, which provides a full change of clothes once a week, free telephone, lockers for security, free hygiene products, coffee and juice.
Other things Streets Alive offers include trusteeship to manage financial concerns, an outreach program that takes services and sandwiches out to the streets, and Foot Friday – an evening to have sore, tired, cold feet dealt with. Streets Alive also has a small fleet of vans which they use to shuttle individuals to meetings, appointments and the shelter.
They are open on Sundays at 11 a.m. for a church service, which is welcome to anyone to attend. A number of registered clergymen work for the organization, including the two founders. Julie Kissick is the regular pastor for the Sunday services.
The Streets Alive organization employs 46 staff members and has a small army of volunteers. Staff includes Cameron’s mother and father, still working “nearly 60 hours a week in their 70s”, Cameron noted proudly.
Ninety per cent of Street’s Alive funding comes through fundraising and donations from the community, while “certain government assistance” provides the rest, Kissick said.
There are only three items Streets Alive buys to help those in need: clean underwear, gloves in the winter time, and hygiene supplies. Everything else comes from charitable individuals, groups and businesses.
Kissick said that money is always a challenge “but we are really good at maximizing every nickel and stretching the dollars to make them go farther.”
The reach of Street’s Alive extends further than that one place. It has a Repurpose Centre at 219 12B St. N. where donations are dropped off and sorted through to be given to those in need; “everything from food to plates and cutlery to kitchen tables.”
These items are free to those in need, though interested parties must make an appointment to get them. Streets Alive also owns and leases several other properties in Lethbridge that are used for their Genesis & Exodus men’s and women’s Recovery Road programs.
Participants in these faith-based programs must complete a proper detox program before gaining access to the 120-day Recovery programs, in which they live in a house and go to take part in programming every day that includes learning about life skills, how to apply for jobs, and more.
After completing the first phases of the programs, participants can choose to either live on their own or continue to Phase 4 – in which they move into a long-term sober living house.
“Streets Alive can house approximately 24 men and 14 women in those first phase programs. We have about 50 beds for people throughout the city in different locations,” Kissick said.
Kissick estimates that there are likely 300 people living “unsheltered” in Lethbridge currently, but since people who are in prison or are in treatment centres are still considered to be “homeless”, the numbers are significantly higher.
He estimates that about 70 per cent of the total number are male, and that they tend to be younger in age now than in previous decades.
“There are fewer services available for single men in need, and families tend to be more open to taking in females,” he said.
Another huge challenge is the opioid crisis. Kissick said that it is creating addictions in a higher number of people that may not have struggled with addictions in the past.
He said it’s creating significant mental health concerns and that the volume of it is just staggering.
Ken Kissick, Cameron’s father and former COO of the organization, related that “back in 1999, 90 per cent of the individuals on the street had problems with alcohol and 10 per cent had problems with other drugs like inhalants. “But when you look at it today that has probably exactly flipped – alcohol is no longer the main issue.”