Too successful to succeed?

Soup kitchen proprietors taxed on mission to feed the poor

Ron and Delphine Dame, 2008, upon the opening of the All Nations Centre in Terrace.

Absolutely,” she said.

Delphine Dame usually pauses with questions like this, carefully choosing words on poverty and homelessness, empathetic toward the spectrum of bad luck that brings people to her soup kitchen. But not now. Her response is surprisingly quick.

“Yes, the community benefits from this in ways they don’t see, and would never want to see.

“Let’s say you have your little home and you live on Cherry Lane. You’re not seeing the type of homeless person who is not the best part of society. They’ve got a place to come and eat, to go to the bathroom, to get warm. If that place wasn’t there, your nice little home would be getting broken into.”

In spite of the stereotype she’s tapped into, or the people within earshot she might offend, the statement is unmistakably directed at City Hall.

Delphine and her husband Ron Dame have run the Bread of Life Soup Kitchen from the All Nations Centre (ANC) on the corner of Davis and Sparks since 2008. In September council voted down the ANC’s appeal for a full tax exemption as a non-profit organization. Instead they received only one-third of the amount they used to receive from the province.

The Dames now owe almost $4,000. They’re worried the annual expense will be enough to shut down the centre for good.

But Delphine’s not angry as she speaks. Like everyone else who’s chipped in to see the ANC succeed, she’s just confused, desperate for council to see the centre’s value in Terrace.

“It’s not just the people down here that are getting help, it’s the people up there too,” she continued. “They might never realize it, it might never cross their mind, but they’re benefiting too.”

An Exercise in Empathy

It’s 2 p.m. on Sunday and the doors open. The patron Delphine described as “not the best part of society” is either invisible or absent. As people seat themselves at any one of the dozen tables, conversations begin to build. Laughter rises regularly.

It’s a pleasant atmosphere.

“Sure, there are people addicted to drugs and alcohol or whatever,” said Ron, the ANC’s director. “But there are also old-age pensioners and elderly people, people on disability incomes, the mentally handicapped…sorry, I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it. There are also working people on very, very low—and this is a big part of it—very low incomes. It could be anyone.”

The Dames understand both sides of the poverty line. They live on the metaphorical Cherry Lane up on the Bench, having retired in the mid-2000s from good careers, Ron as a steam engineer and Delphine as a psychiatric nurse. They now spend about half their time working on behalf of the poor, soliciting and picking up food donations, fundraising, managing a volunteer workforce, helping patrons with personal errands and sorting, preparing and serving food.

Between the two they accrue the equivalent hours of a full-time job—but without the pay cheque. Good Samaritans and former or current patrons assist them every step of the way. Contractors and suppliers have been generous with their resources to help with building repairs and necessary renovations.

The 100-per-cent volunteer-run operation has scraped by this way for nine years. It is the product in equal part of the Dame’s energy and the community’s contribution of money and time.

A Dizzying Bureaucracy

Easily, their largest charitable contribution has come in the form of a property tax exemption.

The BC Conference of the Seventh-day Adventists Church purchased the centre in 2008 and extended their status as a place of public worship to qualify for a statutory tax exemption through BC Assessments, the provincial body responsible for property classification.

But in 2016, unknown persons informed BC Assessment the ANC was not holding the annual minimum of 150 days of public worship services to qualify for tax-exempt status. Until Ron’s health turned last year, they offered services on Saturdays, but that still left them almost 100 days short.

BC Assessment moved the ANC from Class 8 to Class 6, business/other, stripping them of their tax exemption in the process. To get it back, policy states the Dame’s municipal government must approve a permissive tax exemption. On Sept. 11 council voted down that request.

That’s because during weekdays, the ANC rents out the building to the Terrace and District Community Services Society for an outreach program affectionately nicknamed the Living Room Project, supplying the homeless with food, clothing, shelter, counselling and other services.

City staff felt the $500 monthly rent they paid to ANC equated to profit and recommended council deny the full tax exemption on the premise the ANC was not truly non-profit. The ANC received a 29-per-cent exemption instead, based on the two days a week they operated their soup kitchen. The remaining 71 per cent was now considered tax owing due to TDCSS’s tenancy.

Councillors Lynne Christiansen and Brian Downie were the only two who supported the ANC’s request.

“I think that we’re using the term ‘for profit’ in the way it’s not intended. This is a non-profit organization and is using whatever rent to subsidize other parts of their operation… It is to enable them to provide services they would not be able to provide otherwise,” Downie said prior to the vote.

The remainder of council focused on fiscal prudence.

“I think it is leased out for profit,” councilor James Cordeiro said. “We have to keep in mind that every dollar we exempt on one party comes from someone else, or comes out of services.”

In a telephone interview, Mayor Carol Leclerc elaborated on council’s final position.

“These are hard decisions for council,” she said. “They’re heart-wrenching ones to make but we have to make sure we can provide all of the services our city needs.

“I think people think the city is responsible for a lot more than it is. We’re responsible for water, roads, sewage, recreation, police services, fire services, and we try to be as fiscally responsible as we can to provide all the services.”

Leclerc said the city was confident with BC Assessments’ decision to move the ANC off the non-profit roster based on the rent received from TDCSS. But BC Assessments maintains their decision was prompted solely by the centre’s failure to offer the minimum days of worship service.

Regardless, continued Leclerc, it came down to fiscal responsibility. “If we were to allow a permissive tax exemption on 100 per cent, those tax dollars would need to be picked up by everybody else…those tax dollars just don’t go away.”

In the Beginning

It wasn’t always this complicated for the Dames. With a pot of soup, a loaf of bread and a bag of cookies, they served their first patron during the winter of 1996 from a picnic table in George Little Park.

“We were just baptized,” said Ron. “Both of us came to the conclusion that there’s got to be more to church than just going there once a week. We see the love that God put out toward his people…there’s got to be more.”

They soon made it a personal mission to find an indoor space for the soup kitchen.

They became more resolute when a patron named Melvin Aksidan died of exposure in the woods between Mills Memorial and the Sande Overpass, and they eventually found rented space inside what was then Carpenters’ Hall.

By 2008 homelessness had reached a critical point when City Council, the RCMP and downtown businesses were all calling for a solution to public intoxication in the city’s core.

“Everybody wants something done,” said councilor Marylin Davies at the time. “There are people with addiction problems, people who want help…[they] need a place to collect together downtown.”

An editorial in the Terrace Standard described the situation as a “mini version of Vancouver’s downtown East Side.”

The Dames stepped up to supply more services during the week, and from there the developments moved quickly. Hearing of their plans, the Seventh-day Adventists Church sought to purchase Carpenters Hall for the Dames to run.

Upon learning of the building’s intended use, the owners dropped their asking price by almost $25,000. The Dames renamed it the All Nations Centre and began the ongoing search for program funding.

That’s when Casey Eys, a homeless outreach worker for TDCSS saw an opportunity. He proposed his Homeless Outreach Program run a day-centre out of the ANC for shelter, food, counselling and contacts to community services, as well as an emergency overnight shelter during extreme weather.

“He said ‘you have a building but no people and no money,’” Delphine recalls. “‘We have people and resources but no building.’”

TDCSS would occupy the All Nations Centre from Monday to Friday and pay the ANC $500 a month to cover utilities and maintenance. The Bread of Life Soup Kitchen would continue its Sunday operations of a hot lunch and grocery distribution. On Saturdays they provided worship services with a small soup and bun meal.

The Dames and Eys felt it was the perfect arrangement. Multiple programs managed by multiple partners under one roof in the downtown area.

“It is seen more and more as a gathering place than just a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee,” Eys told the Standard in 2009. “The public has been crying for a community centre for some time. Now we’ve got it.”

A Partnership Finished

Today, TDCSS’s executive director, Michael McFetridge, is less hopeful. He’s confirmed the society will move out of the ANC due to council’s decision.

“What we’re doing in that space is critical. But we can’t depend on the city, obviously. From their own actions we can’t depend on them. We have to ensure that TDCSS continues to meet the community’s needs, because that’s what we’re here for.”

McFetridge said while it’s unfair for the Dames to incur a tax debt due to his programs, the society can’t afford to pay the tax bill on their behalf. It would put the Living Room Project at risk of becoming financially unviable.

“The city is judging revenues incorrectly, and poorly,” he said. “A not-for-profit charity, by legal definition, does not have profit. They have revenue…that is a basic business principle that anyone in the municipality should understand.”

During the Sept. 11 council meeting in which the ANC lost its appeal, the TDCSS also lost permissive tax exemptions on two housing projects, a separate but related matter that seems to contradict both the Official Community Plan and the city’s long-term vision, Terrace 2050. It calls for partnerships with non-profits and “the creation of a network of safe places for people to seek refuge and find ways to become part of a more healthy community.”

McFetridge added, “When groups come forward and do what the city has asked them to do, but are then not supported in the manner the city has declared in writing…Well, it’s very confusing, and it’s going to cause problems.”

Value on Volunteerism

The Dames, the patrons and the volunteers are all equally determined, convinced the city will come to see how much service the centre is providing for Terrace.

“We are not planning to close,” Delphine said, “but it could happen.”

According to the ANC treasurer Linda Wilson, the Bread of Life Soup Kitchen raised $23,450 for its operations in 2016. Of this, $7,000 came from TDCSS, a negligible sum when compared to the 6,075-equivalent hours of volunteer time and in-kind donations she values at close to $390,000.

The figure represents a level of service for Terrace that far exceeds what City Hall could provide with $3,884 in tax dollars, she said.

“The Bread of Life Soup Kitchen does not charge for their soup or food distribution,” Wilson wrote in a letter to the Standard. “TDCSS does not charge their patrons for the food or clothing they receive in The Living Room… There is no charge to anyone who comes to us for a warm, safe, welcoming place to spend time.

“We provide all these services for free, fundraise in order to cover the costs of supplies and operation, and now we are being required to fundraise an additional $3,500-plus for taxes so that we can continue to provide these free services. Something is very wrong with this picture!”

In the ANC’s storage room, a narrow new addition paid for with a “pittance” from rent subsidies, Ron and Delphine consider a final question amidst deep-freezers and boxes of produce stacked five tall. Delphine waits for a loud swell of laughter to pass over a dozen volunteers sorting and bagging food hampers.

The ANC is not that fragile that one unexpected bill can topple their efforts, she continues, but when combined with the myriad of weekly challenges they face, such as fundraising, volunteer commitments, and Ron’s physical health, the weight of that bill may be what sinks them once and for all.

“If we go under, it’s not any one person’s fault. But while we’re dealing with all of this,” she says spreading her arms toward the main hall, “that bill is sitting over there in its own special category,” she concludes, thrusting her thumb over her shoulder. “This little monster.”

 

A volunteer collects donated food from Safeway in Terrace, BC, destined for the Bread of Life Soup Kitchen. Quinn Bender photo

A volunteer collects donated baked goods at Safeway in Terrace, BC, destined for the Bread of Life Soup Kitchen. Quinn Bender photo

Volunteers sort donated groceries for charitable food hampers at the Bread of Life Soup Kitchen.

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