The Mustard Seed has been a key institution in the city of Calgary for more than three decades but its history may come as a surprise to many.
“The Mustard Seed was founded by a homeless person,” said Bill Nixon, director of programs and spiritual integration at the Mustard Seed.
“It shows that anyone can do anything with their lives,” he said in a recent interview.
That homeless person found himself at the age of 14 struggling with alcohol and substance abuse and who was living in an abandoned garage in Victoria Park, in Calgary’s inner city.
One day, the youth was approached by a group of four young men from First Baptist Church, on 4th Street S.W.
The men took him in, gave him a room to stay in, cut his hair and provided him with clean clothes. The youth paid them back by stealing their stereo.
The young man was subsequently caught and sent to a wilderness camp program, to rehabilited himself. When he returned to the city, the same four men welcomed him back with open arms.
“They asked, ‘Are you ready to try again?’” said Nixon, who knows the story because the youth involved was his younger brother.
Since then, that simple question has become a guiding principle for the Mustard Seed.
“This is a place where people have the opportunity to change their lives,” said Nixon.
“We continually invite people in, not two times, not three, [and] not four.
“This is a place where home is found, where men and women can come and be accepted, held accountable, but loved.”
Since its beginnings in 1984, the Seed has expanded to meet the needs of thousands of the city’s most vulnerable.
“There’s a verse in the Bible that says, ‘if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, then you can move mountains,’” said Nixon.
“We are trying to move mountains in people’s lives.”
“We have partnerships with other agencies to help our guests,” said Kelsey Brown, community engagement co-ordinator at the Mustard Seed.
“Advocates meet with guests and ask them what their main concerns are and help them get connected with the right supports.”
With housing projects, food initiatives and a network of resources, the Mustard Seed works to help people move forward and make changes in their lives.
“We offer employment services, resources, and interview skills, [or] just dreaming with someone about what they want to do,” said Brown.
“Last year we helped 174 people find sustainable employment.”
To them, tackling homelessness requires an integrated approach.
“Housing is the solution, [but] it has to be housing with enough supports that make it possible for people to be successful,” said Nixon.
“There has to be a sense of community.”
That’s why the organization, along with serving as an emergency shelter, has introduced permanent, affordable housing initiatives.
The 1010 Centre, the organization’s rental complex that opened at 10th Avenue S.E. and Centre Street in 2014, hosts 200 people in residence. It’s one of the largest permanent low-income housing projects in Canada.
A Housing First program for individuals with mental illness or addictions, as well as clean and sober rental units are also offered by the Mustard Seed, and they offer a rental cap at 30 per cent of residents’ incomes.
Each of these housing programs stresses the importance of community living.
“Community is massive,” said Nixon.
For the wider Calgary community, Brown explained a few of the ways to get involved in tackling the effects of homelessness in the city.
A Canada-wide walk for homelessness will be taking place in the city on Feb. 25. Citizens are invited to participate in a 2km, 5km, or 10km walk, she said.
“Coldest Night of the Year is coming up. Walk the route, join a team or make a team,” said Brown.
“As you’re walking you can think about all the people who don’t have homes.”
The organization also posts requests for desperately needed items on the website, which Calgarians are encouraged to check out at any time.
At the heart of their work, the Mustard Seed prioritizes connecting people to community through a client-centred approach.
“You have to build relationships, then you can give [people] the help they need,” said Nixon.
“There are lots of opportunities to volunteer,” said Brown.
“We love to have people engage with our residents, whether it be just hanging out or playing board games.”