02/26/2015 12:17 EST | Updated 04/27/2015 05:59 EDT

Union Gospel Mission celebrates 75 year anniversary in Vancouver

It was desperate times 75 years ago for many in the Downtown Eastside when the Union Gospel Mission first opened its doors back in 1940.

The Depression was barely over and the Second World War was just beginning. In the Downtown Eastside, unemployment was high, alcohol addiction was rampant. 

Today, the Mission serves thousands of people daily, providing food, shelter, outreach and chaplain services to those struggling through poverty and addiction. Last year it served more than 300,000 meals for those in need.  

The Mission's president Bill Mollerd said 75 years ago, people were desperate for help and one young man decided to do something to address that need.  

A room, some soup, and a few beds for $25

The UGM was started by Bob Stacey, who was 21 at the time. He'd had been inspired by a rescue mission in New York City and wanted to do the same in Vancouver.

"He went out from church to church and he raised the princely sum of $25," said Mollard.

That money enabled him to rent a room, make some soup and sandwiches, and put out a few beds.

"There was a flood of people even that first night and it's been the same ever since," said Mollard. 

Today, the Mission operates seven facilities, including affordable housing, drug and alcohol recovery, job preparation and a summer camp. It gets $12 million in donations each year from 45,000 people.

Mollard says today's addictions are more often for hard drugs like crack and crystal meth, with a much shorter route of destruction than alcohol.

"Frankly the route to the Downtown Eastside is as short as 60 days for some people," said Mollard.

Mollard says the Mission also deals with a lot more mental heath issues.

Enabling government to look the other way?

Critics of charities like UGM say the organizations enable governments to look the other way and pass on the responsibility of providing services for those who need them.

"We're leaving a lot of these problems to ad hoc community agencies who are struggling against all odds to meet the needs of people," said Graham Riches, the former director of the School of Social Work at UBC.

But Mollard says the reality is that governments aren't as nimble to respond to need as charities are.

"We don't live in an ideal world," he said. "The government has to balance 158 priorities and they do so imperfectly and the problem is there always will be gaps."

He adds that charities give people an opportunity to get involved in their communities in ways that governments can't.

"If you opened up and the government said no more charities, I don't know how many of the 4,000 volunteers at UGM would volunteer for the government."

Mollard says the Mission is currently looking at expanding its programs for women and children and affordable housing.

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Union Gospel Mission celebrates 75 years in Vancouver