The Shuswap benefited greatly when Rev. Michael Shapcott moved here in 2018 to become the Executive Director of the Sorrento Centre, given the valuable contributions to society he has already made throughout his “eclectic” career. After graduating with a degree in journalism, Michael worked at the Albertan, eventually becoming the editor. When it was purchased and converted to the Calgary Sun, he left to pursue a degree in law.
During his time in Calgary, he had a “ringside seat” to the ongoing urban problems, like housing and poverty, which became worse when the provincial government removed rent controls resulting in upwards of 200 percent rent increases. At the University of Toronto Law School, he quickly became disillusioned with the legal training that basically taught “corporate income tax evasion.” He decided to focus on poverty law, which required taking courses at nearby Osgoode Hall at York University and doing a tenant law practicum in a poor neighbourhood.
Rather than carrying forward with a legal profession, Michael chose to focus on community organizing work with non-profits, beginning with a job with the Christian Resource Centre in Regent Park. He soon came to be known as a firebrand by providing a voice for the disadvantaged, helping them tell their stories and providing opportunities for them to escape poverty. His work expanded into politics and he helped create an amendment to the Tenants Act that stopped evictions.
In 1989, ten people died in a horrific fire in mid-December, which destroyed the run-down Regent Hotel that provided vastly inadequate housing for low-income residents, likely due to the waste can fires used to provide some warmth in the unheated rooms. The provincial government was forced to take action and Michael was contracted to run the Rupert Initiative that provided funding to renovate 250 units and build 250 new units of housing.
Over the following years, Michael worked with the Co-op Housing Federation, a university think tank and finally for the charitable office of the Prince of Wales. Over his long and distinguished career, he helped many thousands of people find employment, helped achieve funding for approximately two thousand housing units, helped form the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, and co-authored a book with Jack Layton about homelessness.
One of his first achievements in Sorrento was spearheading the installation of solar panels that produce twice the power required for the main building, thus reducing the hydro costs for other parts of the Centre. When COVID hit, most of the activities had to be cancelled, but Michael saw this as an opportunity to utilize the Centre for helping the community through collaboration with other organizations.
As a result of the Centre joining the Shuswap Social Service Coalition, Michael realized there was a growing number of low-income people that lacked good nutrition. Given that the Centre had a commercial kitchen that was sitting idle, a plan was devised to utilize it for preparing nutritious meals that would be distributed to those in need by three local non-profits.
Funding for the meal program was secured from BC Housing and other agencies, which covered the food and staffing expenses. The meals are all individually packed in paper bags for breakfast and lunch and in compostable containers for the dinner meals that can be re-heated. Volunteer drivers deliver the meals in the Centre’s van that include upwards of 80 meals per day just for Salmon Arm. To date upwards of 60,000 meals have been provided thanks to over $400,000 in grants to date.
In addition to the meal program, Michael is working with the CSRD and local housing groups to secure a site for a low-income housing project in the South Shuswap. As the pandemic restrictions are slowly being lifted, user groups including musicians, fibre-artists and church groups have returned to the Centre, yet it is continuing to make a difference in the Shuswap community by helping find solutions to the growing problems creating by rising inequality. Given that Michael explained his mission, “true faith is expressed in tangible ways,” he continues to work long hours every day to address homelessness, poverty and hunger in addition to his work overseeing the activities at the Sorrento Centre.
Michael Shapcott has dedicated his life to be a “voice for the disadvantaged’ by helping them tell their stories, by providing opportunities and through community organizing. He has been witnessing first hand how gentrification has impacted cities, by evicting the poor and converting buildings into “yuppie palaces.” The loss of low income housing has contributed to the alarming rise in the number of homeless people who are forced to tent in city parks or on vacant properties.
Too often social workers are confronted with a dilemma regarding how to deal with those battling addictions, Michael explained, as often they are not allowed into supportive housing, yet they need housing security in order to break their addictions. He has achieved progress with his role as a facilitator. For example, he once organized a conference that included speakers who were the very people that needed help, so that the attendees could learn about the issues from those who were most aware of the problems given they were speaking from direct experience rather than from textbook knowledge. Finding solutions to the housing crisis requires collaborative actions on so many levels, from increasing taxes for the wealthy to ensuring that housing fits the requirements of those who are in need, rather than the reverse.
While Michael deserves accolades for his work so far, he is the first to give credit to his team, who he considers to be very supportive and helpful. He is optimistic about the future for the Shuswap, given there is a dynamic network of groups and individuals, along with community-minded businesses who who have similar goals and have already achieved some success. Plus, there is at least one Canadian city, Lethbridge, that has managed to end homelessness, and can serve as a model for others.
You can learn more about the Sorrento Centre by visiting their website, Sorrento Centre.