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Turning a house into a home

Program helps furnish rooms, change lives

RUTH Kershaw knows that a home is more than just four walls and a roof.

For almost five years, she has been helping to provide furniture and household items to people on the North Shore who are transitioning from homelessness to independent living, as well as those eking by on a limited income.

"You can just get on with your life when you have the stuff you need, but when you start to look at the cost of a bed, a couch, a kitchen table, dishes, pots, most people have scrunched together just enough for their damage deposit and their rent and they don't have anything more. They're still living in a state of hopelessness," Kershaw says.

"If you were standing in an empty room and you had your coat for your blanket and somebody offered you a bed, wouldn't it make everything feel different?"

Kershaw founded Shelter to Home in 2008 in response to a request from the North Shore Lookout Society.

"Tom" had just left the society's North Vancouver shelter and was living in an empty room with no money for furniture. Kershaw, who is a volunteer co-ordinator at the society, approached her congregation at Highlands United Church and quickly collected the items Tom needed.

"I simply stood up at my choir and walked away with everything," she says.

A few days later, she received another request for help. For the two and a half years that followed, Kershaw's garage and guest room were packed full of donated chairs, dishes and cookware ready to hand out to those in need.

Things turned around when the program received some community grants, allowing Kershaw to rent a much-needed storage facility. Around that time, Highlands United Church made Shelter to Home one of its official outreach ministries.

"Now here we are coming up to our five-year anniversary and we've helped about 550 people," Kershaw says.

Every month, the program aids about 15 North Shore clients. Some are overcoming drug and alcohol addictions, some have mental illness, and others are simply out of work. Clients are referred from the North Shore Lookout Society, the Harvest Project, Sage Transition House, Hollyburn Family Services, BC Housing, the Canadian Mental Health Association and other agencies.

Lookout manager Linda Fox says Shelter to Home has helped many people move on with their lives after a stay at the North Shore shelter.

"They can actually start a life when they get out of here and get a place, for real, as opposed to still being in limbo," she says.

Having clean furniture close at hand also means the shelter can quickly replace any items that have grown an unwanted infestation, Fox says.

"We don't have a huge bedbug problem at all, thank goodness, because we're able to do that."

Kershaw now works with a team of 10 volunteers, all members of Highlands United Church, who help organize and transport donations.

She says Shelter to Home always welcomes new donations, especially countertop appliances, as long as the items are in good condition.

"If you wouldn't put this in your own guest room, or you wouldn't give it to your own child to set up their new apartment, it likely won't work for us," she says.

Her goal is to level the playing field for residents who are going through a rough patch.

"Enough is what we're trying to provide. It's not just enough stuff, I think people should have enough dignity and enough hope and be able to get on with their healing," she says.

"The whole point of getting them established is so they can become useful citizens again and actually get into jobs again - I've seen that happen and that feels good."

To donate to Shelter to Home, call 778-331-8465.