It’s a Good Thing: YWCA Metro Vancouver is widening its doors to the plight of newcomers

Rising costs are hitting the YWCA's client base particularly hard.


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Rising costs are hitting the YWCA’s client base particularly hard

The global reality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is being felt in a tangible way by at least one local organization.

“In our office this week, we welcomed our first group of Ukrainian mothers, who need everything from the basic supplies to housing,” says Erin Seeley, CEO of YWCA Metro Vancouver. “It’s been very touching, and it has drawn an acute focus on the most immediate needs of newcomers.” She adds that the Ukrainian efforts are part of a broader push to support women fleeing crises: “We also have an employment program for Afghan women, and we still have Syrian newcomers who we’re helping to adapt five years later. All of this really shapes our programming.”

I’m speaking with Seeley in mid-June, just two weeks after her start with the Y. Seeley previously served as senior vice president of policy and stakeholder engagement for the BC Financial Services Authority, and before that as CEO of the Real Estate Council of BC. But her experience in immigration issues runs deep, having spent more than a decade with the provincial government, including as executive director of Immigration Programs. (Her first job, a co-op placement while at Capilano University studying Latin American management, was in funds development for a nonprofit in Argentina.)

Seeley sees her new role—a combination of advocacy and service provision for women in need—as marrying her interests in business and social justice. “From a justice standpoint, there’s a mismanagement of expectations in terms of what immigrants—in particular women—can expect in their journey to become economically empowered. I think that’s something that’s always been on my mind,” she says. “We attract the best and brightest from all over the world—and they just can’t get either a foot in the door or that leg up, to use their skills and be able to afford our cost of living.”

YWCA 2021 Annual ReportYWCA 2021 Annual Report

The affordability crisis has been a long-running motif of Vancouver life, but in 2022—with inflation running at over 8 percent by the mid–year mark—it’s become even more acute. Rising costs are hitting the YWCA’s client base particularly hard, says Seeley: “We’ve got clients who have to choose between paying rent and feeding their families.” (The YWCA provides subsidized housing to over 900 women throughout the Lower Mainland, as well as labour market programs, child-care and other social services.)

Seeley says that while YWCA is committed to advocating for more income assistance or raising the shelter rate, she’s aware of the economic headwinds the organization faces and how inflation could constrain the support they get from government. For example, in 2021, over half of YWCA Vancouver’s funding came from “government contracted programs.”

While some of the organization’s other revenue streams—such as the hotel and gym it owns and operates in downtown Vancouver—took a hit during COVID, Seeley expects those numbers to rebound. And she’s leaning heavily on her experience in funds development to help the Y weather the economic storm: a big capital campaign is planned for this fall as the organization celebrates its 125th anniversary—and looks to fund the challenges of the future.

“We want to be accessible and available to folks who might not have known about us before or who didn’t feel safe coming to an organization like this,” says Seeley. “Those who are most vulnerable—a lot of them are newcomers, and a lot of them are racialized and have intersectional challenges, whether it’s ability, ethnicity or language. That’s where we see the biggest need.”