St. James Community Service Society
St. James Community Service Society has a long legacy of caring for Vancouver’s most vulnerable citizens. The Society was founded in 1961 by volunteers from St. James Anglican Church, located at the corner of Gore and Cordova, who wanted to actively address the social issues in their neighbourhood.
For many people, May Gutteridge is synonymous with the early days of the Society. The feisty leader of the St. James Pensioners’ Club, May took it upon herself to address needs she saw around her in what is now referred to as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The club, which had 700 members by 1960, started in the church basement in 1958 by a group of volunteers. They looked after the military pensions of veterans whose alcoholism often made them unable to properly manage their income. The Pensioners’ Club was renamed the St. James Social Service in 1961.
In the 1960s, May recognized the needs of Aboriginal women who at that time did not qualify for social income assistance. With no income and complex challenges that often stemmed from being raised in residential schools, many women became ensnared in a cycle of abuse, addiction and crime. A new group, the East Enders Society, was formed and opened a women’s hostel in a rented house on the 800 block of East Hastings.
More need was recognized in the greater community, and St. James Social Service expanded its services in the 1970s and 1980s. The Society began work such as home help, which would assist local hotel residents stay healthy and cared for in their rented accommodation. Counselling and cheque administration services as well as legal aid were added. The Gastown Workshop opened a craft production workshop centre, helping clients develop self esteem and valuable job skills.
The original Santiago Lodge was opened in 1971 as the first supported housing facility run by the Society, and remains a core service today. The Victory Hotel, later renamed Victory House, was opened in 1975 as a second residence. In 1972, the Society moved its home to the 300 block of Powell, where it still has its offices today. As well as the workshop, the Society operated a cafeteria, thrift shop, laundry, and shower and bathroom facilities in the same block. In 1977, Powell Place opened as the organization continued to recognize the need for emergency housing for women and children in crisis.
Much later, in 2003, St. Elizabeth’s in Mount Pleasant opened as an alternative emergency shelter for women and their children outside the Downtown Eastside. The facility also included longer term housing units for families, another first for the Society. In 1982, the Society opened another shelter, this time mixed gender. The Triage Shelter, as it was known, eventually became independent as the forerunner of today’s Raincity Housing & Support Society.
As part of a large redevelopment of Society buildings on Powell Street, Cecelia House opened in 1986, extending the continuum of care for people with mental health issues. Low-cost supported housing for older adults and seniors came with the opening of the Cordova House program in 1997, followed by Somerville Place, an initiative that added affordable housing for low-income residents of the Downtown Eastside. The Society continued its financial administration operations, offering sometimes daily support to hundreds of low-income Downtown Eastside residents. 1998 saw the addition of the Adult Guardianship service, which administers the incomes of people, mostly low-income seniors, who are vulnerable to financial abuse or who are no longer able to care for their own finances.
Caring for the Terminally Ill
St. James opened Western Canada’s first free-standing hospice for terminally ill patients in 1990 in response to the rise of AIDS. May’s Place was and still is a six-bed hospice that opened in the renovated building in the 300 block of Powell Street. A second hospice, with ten beds, St. James Cottage Hospice opened in 1999 overlooking Burrard Inlet. The renovation of Cottage Hospice was made possible by the success of the Society’s first public capital campaign, generously supported by, amongst others, actress
Through the years, May was recognized by various levels of government and social service agencies as a leader and agent of positive change for Vancouver’s most vulnerable. She received the prestigious YWCA Woman of Distinction Award in 1980 and 1990, was given the Order of Canada in 1981. She retired in 1990 and passed away in 2002. Her true legacy, and our continued inspiration, was her compassion, generosity and determination.
May (right) with St. James resident
St. James Now and into the Future
While St. James Community Service Society today continues its vital work independent of St. James Anglican Church, we still deliver services that enable people with complex needs to live their lives as fully as possible and on their own terms. Our work is based on professional practices and standards, with the range and flexibility to address individual needs.
In the last few years, the Society has responded to the increasingly complex social environment by working more closely with other organizations, gradually narrowing the focus of our service portfolio to where we can make the greatest impact. The innovation continues today with several new developments in the pipeline. Throughout our journey, we have retained the essence and spirit of our founder’s vision as we continue to work to transform communities for the future. For 50 years, with your help, we have been making a difference in the lives of people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, throughout the city, and across the Lower Mainland, and we will continue to do so as long as there is need.
Click here to see a visual timeline of St. James's history, within the context of Vancouver's social history.