'A lot busier' than previous years at Union Gospel Mission's annual Thanksgiving meal

With Vancouver's homeless count at a 10-year high, hundreds were already in line before noon for a free turkey dinner.

President of UGM says more people struggling due to affordable housing crunch

Bill Mollard of the Union Gospel Mission says it takes all year to plan the day-long event which serves thousands of people. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

Hours before lunch time today, the alley and streets surrounding Union Gospel Mission in the Downtown Eastside were already packed with people lining up for the agency's annual Thanksgiving Day meal.

Bill Mollard, president of the Christian organization, said between the sunny weather and a growing population struggling with housing in Vancouver, it felt like more people were turning to them than previous years.

"We know from the homeless count, there are more homeless people this year. People are struggling with rents and affordable housing," said Bill Mollard, the president of the organization. "So yes, it does seem a lot busier this year."

Hundreds of people were already in line outside the Union Gospel Mission by about 10 a.m. PT on Thanksgiving morning. Volunteers handed out cups of hot chocolate. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

In March, the City of Vancouver's annual count of the number of people without a home was the highest in 10 years. 

According to an internal report, there were 1,847 people without a place to live — 101 more people than the last count in 2015.

At Union Gospel Mission, Mollard said staff and an "army" of volunteers had been preparing for weeks to serve 3,000 meals to the city's most vulnerable.

Volunteers stood at the ready to serve up more turkey dinners at the Union Gospel Mission for Thanksgiving. (Lien Yeung/CBC)
Aspiring pastry chef Maggie Zhang was serving up pumpkin pie desserts for guests at the dinner. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

Happy to give back

For part-time cook Jenna Woytiuk, her involvement this year was particularly meaningful.

She grew up as an athlete, ripping down slopes in alpine skiing. But last fall, her life took a dark turn as she struggled with drug and alcohol addiction.

Jenna Woytiuk was happy to be helping out as a part-time cook at the 2016 Union Gospel Mission Thanksgiving Day meal after struggling with addictions the previous year. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

"I lost everything pretty much," she said. "Last winter I was homeless in Squamish, just outside in the bush."

Eventually, she says she reached out to The Sanctuary, the mission's refuge for women and was able to turn her life around.

Woytiuk was grateful to be serving meals this year while studying in hopes of becoming an addictions counsellor.

"This is what they did for me last year," she while setting down trays turkey and stuffing.

"I'm really happy to that this year [to] give back and make sure everybody feels at home."

More than 2,500 pounds of turkey were carved up for the annual Union Gospel Mission Thanksgiving meal. (Lien Yeung/CBC)