Jennifer Johnstone and the Central City Foundation

By Elisa Birnbaum
CharityVillage NewsWeek
April 2, 2007

This month in our Funder Focus we feature the Central City Foundation, an organization that’s about to celebrate 100 years in existence. CharityVillage spoke with president and CEO Jennifer Johnstone about how, after all these years, the foundation has remained committed to supporting safe and affordable housing and programs that enhance the lives of people in need on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

CharityVillage: The Central City Foundation has a very unique and longstanding commitment to Vancouver. Can you briefly describe its beginnings?

Jennifer Johnstone: In 1907, a small group of concerned citizens got together and they raised the funds and built a mission on Abbott Street that was operated for the next 80 years or so. It served mostly transient men in Gastown, what was called the Central City in those days and what is now our downtown or inner city. There was a real transient population coming in off ships from lumber mills and mines who would gravitate to that part of the city. So it provided shelter and support and food and those kinds of things to people in need.

CV: The foundation will be celebrating its centennial this summer. In all those years has the mission evolved in any way or has it remained the same?

Over the years, our mandate has always been very broad: to enhance the lives of people in need in the inner city. That shelter lasted until the late 80s. The population of people changed though. We see more families, more women, more single moms with kids. So, the community started to change and the nature of needs changed. People were struggling with different kinds of addictions and more people were struggling with mental health issues living on the street. So we sold the mission building and did some other things.

The first thing we did was to build the Central City Lodge, which is an intermediate care facility and detox centre in Vancouver. The shelter had become less of a transient shelter and much more of a service providing ongoing care, but not in an appropriate facility. So we built an appropriate facility for that ongoing care and migrated that over to an organization that’s now independent, called the Central City Lodge Society.

At the same time, the Central City Mission Society created a foundation that would be able to continue the work of the mission on the streets of the Downtown Eastside in new ways. We became a foundation that can support safe and affordable housing and programs that enhance the lives of people in need. So we’re no longer a direct service delivery organization; we support other organizations, both through a granting program and through the investment of our capital in community assets.

CV: What challenges does the foundation face in its mission today? Do they differ from those faced years ago?

JJ: The community faces continued daunting challenges. Poverty continues to be a challenge that many people struggle with in our community. Addictions have changed and homelessness has become an increasing challenge in the Downtown Eastside. So those things are harder and we’re faced with a real push for gentrification and an inflation in the real estate market, which means our community investments don’t go as far as they used to. That presents us with some challenges in terms of how we can continue to build those community assets.

There were always problems of alcoholism, homelessness, hunger, unemployment and loneliness in Gastown and what was called Central City. A lot of those things are still around, with different groups of people experiencing those issues in different ways today in our community. Some of those problems are more complex to solve in the 21st century, like addiction and homelessness, with regard to what’s happening with the real estate market. And there’s a whole strategy in the city to try to revitalize the Downtown Eastside but not displace the folks who are there. This foundation remains committed to trying to help to build what you call a low-income-friendly neighbourhood and making sure that it’s still an inclusive neighbourhood. And so we can do that, both through our housing project and through other community assets and through grants to organizations that are really meeting the mission of enhancing the lives of people in need.

For example, we’re right in the middle of building the Phil Bouvier Family Centre (named after the deceased former executive director who was instrumental in getting the project going) on Princess Avenue. It will be a family services hub – run by the Vancouver Native Health Society – as well as a new 90-space daycare. We’re in the process of doing all the paperwork to be able to sign contracts and start construction to renovate a building that will house that. We hope to be open in the fall.

CV: There seems to be a strong emphasis on the foundation’s support of housing initiatives. Why has this become so integral to the foundation’s work?

JJ: It always has been important. It’s people’s basic needs that we have been addressing for 100 years, and right now housing remains a critical need, along with addiction services. People in the Downtown Eastside need better incomes and better housing. We can help directly by providing better housing or by renovating the housing. The buildings we manage are very well-run, safe and affordable, and we can do more of that. Through our grant programs we can support many of the innovative organizations that are offering employment opportunities and social enterprise development in the Downtown Eastside. So, we can help people access some of those better incomes. And our efforts continue to move forward with a project to build a long-term residential treatment facility for youth in the province.

CV: Have partnerships always been integral to the initiatives of the foundation?

In the past, our resources were sufficient to do our housing on our own. But, today, we do want to partner more and more. We’re not a huge foundation, so for some of those opportunities we really need to [partner] so that we can leverage our resources to do more. Both the daycare project and the long-term youth treatment centre are projects that involve many partners – from community and government, as well as the many donors and private sector folks. Those kinds of partnerships will probably continue because the nature of addressing complex problems requires complex solutions and many partners on many levels. And we’ll likely continue to try to build those types of partnerships in order to have a greater impact in the community.

Today we have a really nice partnership; we’ve contracted the management of our housing to Atira Property Management, the subsidiary of Atira Women’s Resource Society. In that way, we put back into the community as well. They do a fabulous job and we have incredibly well-run buildings with long-term, happy tenants.

CV: What type of grants do you provide?

JJ: Our grants tend to be in the area of small capital grants. We’re the folks to turn to if you want to get a new stove for your food program. Or, for example, the new round of grants we’re making right now are involved with buying some equipment for organizations like the Pot Luck Café Society, which is a social enterprise in the Downtown Eastside. Or the Tradeworks Training Society, where we’re going to help set up a new enterprise for women in trades. We’re able to purchase a critical piece of equipment for them to help get them up and running.

CV: What of the future? Do you foresee any changes in mission or goals?

We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing because it really makes a difference to people’s lives and I see it as being a part of continuing that trust and tradition. We’re not looking to suddenly change directions, but the needs of people in the community shift and change and we, over the years, continue to shift and change with them.

We had a really interesting dialogue session with folks from community and government and other funders to talk about what we should be doing next We heard really clearly from community that we don’t have the assets to solve the problems, but we have a really good model that’s been successful in the sense of what we can do. We can play a real role in trying to save some of the affordable housing stock that we’re losing in the Downtown Eastside right now. So we will be looking for a project to invest in. That’s my next piece of work, to look for that new opportunity so that we can help to preserve the SRO [single room occupancy] housing stock that is eroding. The SRO is a really critical part of homelessness.

CV: What is it about the legacy of this 100-year-old organization that makes you so proud to be a part of it?

One of the things about this organization is the sense that needs will change, but we can always be here to try and help. We might not solve things but we can make a difference and we can continue to be here. That’s really what’s driven this organization for the last century and what it will continue to be effective in doing.

We haven’t spent a lot of time being vocal about the accomplishments of this foundation. But I do believe that the foundation leads by example. We see a lot of people talking about the relevancy of community investment and program-related investment these days within the world of philanthropy. We’ve been doing it for a long time and we’re continuing to do it. And it works. As a foundation, we don’t just invest our income, we invest our capital in our community and hold those assets for the benefit of community. I think it’s a model that, increasingly, other foundations are starting to look at. I also think that, despite the very traditional ways of the foundation, it’s really innovative and ahead of its time. And I hope I get to play a role in continuing that tradition.

A veteran of the nonprofit sector, Jennifer Johnstone arrived at Central City Foundation after an extensive and successful career in fundraising and nonprofit management. Though primarily focused on areas of social justice, Jennifer spent a few years at Vancity Community Foundation and even tackled the art world with a two-year stint as executive director of Ballet BC before joining Central City. For more information about the foundation, visit:

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance print and broadcast journalist living in Toronto.