Frank Giustra has always followed his heart – whether that’s ascending to the top of the heap in the mining industry, or charting a new course in the film industry. It’s his heart that first became engaged in the homeless issue. Once it was, his intellect kicked into high gear to find solutions to what was becoming an increasingly intractable issue in the city.
Eight years ago while touring the Downtown Eastside with Judy Graves, the well-known and much acclaimed advocate, he had a heartbreaking encounter with a young Aboriginal woman. “She’d just been kicked-out of the SRO she shared with her boyfriend at three in the morning,” says Frank.
“She had nowhere to go, and no means to support herself as she’d recently been released from prison. And, to make things worse, she had just been diagnosed with stomach cancer.”
“I can still hear her saying ‘I just want to die,’” says Frank. “I defy anyone to hear a story like that and not be moved to help.”
After those late evenings on the Downtown Eastside, he spent the following year educating himself on homeless issues along with small group of people from the private and public sectors who came together to form the Streetohome Board.
One of Frank’s first lessons was that homelessness is a complex issue and there are many different reasons people become homeless, including mental illness.
“Many of us tend to look at the homeless as a sub-society, or as a statistic, or we think they’re lazy, they just don’t want to work, or they’re drinking their lives away. We have all these preconceived notions, or excuses of these people not being as worthy as the rest of us to receive care and attention.”
“I understood for the first time that the homeless were on the street because they didn’t have the capacity to care for themselves. So, you couldn’t just put them in housing and expect them to do well, because they need supports to help them manage.”
“We looked at what other jurisdictions were doing – and one of the key lessons we learned was that in order for there to be a workable solution, it had to start with public/private partnerships. It had to be a collaborative effort with the non-profits, who were already working in the field and knew what they were doing, the city, and the provincial government,” says Frank.
Armed with a 10-year plan, a $200M commitment from the province, land from the city, and a promise that Streetohome would kick-in $26M from private sector donations, Streetohome was on its way to making a difference in the community. Since it was established in 2008, it has funded 19 supportive housing projects throughout the city and directly helped more than 2,300 vulnerable individuals. As leader of fundraising for Streetohome, Frank donated $5 million to the campaign to show his support.
In 2012, Frank was also quick to provide capital funding for the Vancouver Rent Bank, which provides short-term interest-free loans for those at risk of eviction or utility cut-off.
Frank has taken the lesson of partnerships – involving those who have a stake in the issue from the get-go – to many of his philanthropic activities. “If you want to do something effectively, you have to bring in all partners who have a stake in the issue, so they can each do their part. It’s the approach we’ve taken to help Syrian refugees fleeing civil war to Lesvos, Greece. I can be so much more effective by engaging in partnerships than doing it on my own.”
Again, it was his heart that got him involved in helping refugees. “I went over there reluctantly, because I didn’t need another job,” he says ruefully, “but the minute I saw what was happening, I had no choice. It’s like how do you see that stuff and not do something?”
“When you see people suffering, and you hear their stories firsthand – whether it’s the homeless, refugees, people living in poverty in Latin America, or young boys who need mentors because their parents are alcoholics, or they’re deeply troubled – you can’t help but be drawn in, and want to make a difference.”
If that makes Frank a bleeding heart, he’s just fine with that.