Why I am proud to be a chaplain for the Portland Hotel Society

Al McKay

Al McKay

A funny thing happened on Sunday at church. I had been scheduled for a month to read the scriptures, and I felt a slight chill when I discovered the passage was John 12:1-11.

This is the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with the perfume that was worth a year’s wages. Judas complained that it should have been sold, with the money going to the poor. Jesus stated that the poor would always be in the world but he would be with his disciples only a week longer.   

I thought about where I would stand in this story and why the chill ran down my neck as I read. 

I contract out to the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), the group that has been audited by the BC government and BC Housing and is accused of inappropriate use of funds.

I am the chaplain-come-spiritual-advisor for the PHS. Residents and staff call me different names depending on the context: Al, Pastor Al, SpirituAl and Father.

I confess that during these last few days I have had a mixture of emotions – anger, grief, and gratitude.



Stories in the media which use language that inflates a perverse sensationalism make me angry. The PHS board and directors have been made out to be people motivated solely by greed.

The leadership that I know have lived out the belief that we are all connected as human beings and that it is obscene for people on the margins to live in conditions that do not respect humanity.

Perhaps the PHS staff and leadership have come alongside those on the margins in such strong ways that they have ruffled feathers of those in places of powers. I give my anger to the Creator and pray that my anger will be controlled not controlling.


Over the last 23 years the leadership of the PHS have fought to give voice to those who are the most marginalized in Vancouver: the addict, the mentally ill, the HIV/AIDS and Hep C patient, the person in trouble with the law. 

Their leadership has inspired the current staff of over 300 to see the ‘other’ not as someone to fear or to lock up but as someone to learn from, someone who deserves the gift of radical hospitality.

The grief I recognize in residents and staff is a grief mixed with fear of a new PHS leadership not seeing people to be embraced but to be managed.

Eugene Peterson writes in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, “We live in a world that has replaced soul with self. This reduction turns people into either problems or consumers.” Will the three levels of government, along with the new board and directors of the PHS, see souls or will they simply see consumers and problems? If it is the latter, grief will continue.


I feel such a sense of gratitude for my opportunity to work with the senior leadership and staff of the PHS. The core leaders have had and have led with a fierce piercing vision that encourages all who work at the PHS to extend the gift of dignity to residents and colleagues.

One of the most precious roles I have with the PHS is to preside over memorials.  Friends and acquaintances from the community, family, health professionals and staff come to show their respects and tell their stories.

At every memorial I have helped facilitate, there have been expenses. An estimate cost, including my hours, would be $300 per memorial. I have done 70 in just over three years, totaling $21,000.

One way to account for these services would be:

Flowers $50
Food $100
Facilitator $130
Photo frame $20
Connectedness + care + community + supporting family and friends as they grieve PRICELESS

One parent wrote, “Thirty years ago B’s father and I moved to northern B.C. B would not join us, so we said a prayer and gave her to Jesus to look after. He didn’t fail us. He took her to the PHS, and she lived to the end with a family of caring, loving staff, merchants and friends. We thank each of you . . .”

I thank God for the tremendous gift of working with the leadership and the staff and knowing some of the many residents who are cared for by the Portland Hotel Society.

To the three directors I know the best – Mark, Liz and Kirsten – I say: May the God who knows the beginning and the end, who has known us from the beginning of time, give you comfort and his radical embrace for the way you have lived out the mandate of loving one’s neighbour.

Al has lived his entire life no further than 20 km from where he grew up East Vancouver, having worked as a teacher, a ministry staff person for Inter-Varsity and Pioneer Camp and an associate with City in Focus. As of May 1, he will be moving under the auspices of Outreach Canada.

The best decision in his life was marrying Mia, and the most recent awe-inspiring moment was holding Everett Alexander McKay Moss for the first time.

To contact Al, email him at [email protected].

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14 comments for “Why I am proud to be a chaplain for the Portland Hotel Society

  1. If you go to the Canada Revenue Agencies website, look up Portland Hotel Society, and look up the top ten salaries for the organization, you will find that the senior management were not making more than others in the field, in fact the ED was making at least 50,000 less than other comparable organizations, such as Union Gospel Mission.

    It is a sad day when individuals who have done so much for people in Vancouver might not be remembered for their incredible contributions, but rather for the apparent lack of judgement on these spending issues.

    What they did not lack was judgement on how to treat people with dignity and respect while creating ways for those who have had very difficult lives to contribute… So let’s keep the story in balance and honor what was accomplished.

    The fear for the future is real – for people flourish and grow while in community. I hope Portland will continue to live with those who are poor, not devolve into just serving the poor.

  2. If they were committed to living among the poor and vulnerable, then WHY were they so caught up in lavish things like limo rides, expensive hotels and restaurants, etc.? I just wished PHS exec and staff would say: “Yes, they/we messed up and spent some of the money entrusted to us foolishly and by doing so, we hurt vulnerable people who depend on that money to be used wisely. We are sorry.”

    • Hi Jen,

      I understand your concern, it is a common perspective. However, I feel it is misguided. Did you know that limo rides are significantly cheaper than cabs, depending on the number of people who need a ride? Those restaurants were for massive staff meetings (unpaid), a form of rewarding good, innovative, and compassionate work, and well below the administrative allowance allowed for such things. The hotel prices the media is spewing are for multiple rooms at international conferences, where rooms are often upwards of $300/night. Remember, these are world renowned experts in harm reduction service implementation, in high demand (at least until this media assassination occurred, and the public ate it up), not Buddhist monks.

      Why people think that working in the massively valuable (in $$ as well as humanitarian terms) non-profit sector has to leave a person destitute is beyond me, while the same people think its reasonable to be unreasonably financially rewarded for selling plastic widgets and cutting down trees. If the PHS service results were questionable it would be one thing, but given their vast success and reduction of suffering on an unprecedented scale (in North America), their cost efficiency, and their continued innovation, I find it bewildering that people are crying for so much blood. Don’t believe the hype – research the context.

  3. Well said – thanks Al.

    Shocked by our adult population and the hypocrisy around blatant bullying in the news. Discussing facts and solutions the media is not. Putting systems in place and holding people accountable for imperfect bookkeeping did not require any of those people stepping down and that is a fact.

    Remember these are people’s lives.

  4. Thanks for this Al. I just want to clarify that there are no criminal charges pending against PHS management, because it is very clear that no laws were broken. The RCMP comments made by certain stake holders are- like the entire mainstream media campaign- strategic, designed to conjure images of wrong doing. I challenge anyone who is sceptical of Al’s position to closely look at the audit. Bad book keeping? Yes. Evidence of significant wrong doing? Not even a little bit. Finally, I’d like to suggest the radical notion that political gain lies behind the dismantling of the PHS, who in the name of Canada’s most marginalized population, has continually pitted itself against the highest levels of government. Who is left to do that now? Convenient, right? Who has engineered this smear campaign, and who stands to gain the most from it, politically and financially? Also convenient, if you do a little research. I’ll be very surprised if anyone steps in to do the kind of good work the PHS has done- instead we will see an increasingly beureaucratized service structure that takes punitive steps to manage behaviours that the PHS managed through love and respect for those who need it most.

    • Things aren’t always as they seem. Is it not self-evident the PHS cadre engineered this smear campaign by creating an absolutely perfect narrative of venality and incompetence for their detractors to exploit – and were extremely well compensated to do it? After all, the “mainstream media” weren’t jetting around the world and staying in luxury hotels.

      Now, the powers-that-be have an excuse to reduce/change/eliminate services, make more restrictions on other social services agencies. Now, the PHS can be dispensed with in a sort of DTES Night of the Long Knives.

      How “is it very clear no laws were broken?” The PHS refused to let the forensic auditors look at any receipts or records – if in fact they exist. Note, two audits were attempted – both stress their scope was extremely limited as documentation was not provided. Note, most of that data is still sitting on hard disks somewhere.

      Recreating the PHS’s spending spree is only a subpoena away. The CBC have one of the directors, who admits on camera, saying they had not had a board meeting in three years. Health Minister Lake admits that “millions” are unaccounted for.

      • Hi Hal,

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts. All of your information is coming from the mainstream media, who completely ignore context and omit vital information in the name of creating sensationalized accounts of the “lavish spending”. There are no missing millions- it’s all public record (via bad book keeping), and relates to the social enterprises that work as employment programs.

        These were never intended to be profitable, they are intended to provide work training and experience so people can re-enter the workforce. They are effective, and I hope to see them funded by HRDC grants in the future (as, in my opinion, they should have been already).

        Regarding criminality, Warpath Rich Coleman himself has specifically stated that there are no criminal charges being laid because nothing criminal was done. Lastly, the private sector routinely rewards its employees for providing distinguished service- bonuses, etc. In the private sector performance is measured according to an increase in profits for the company.

        The PHS has kept well within its discretionary income for administrative spending (significantly lower than the industry average), and rewarded its employees for being exemplary and innovative within the non-profit context; rewarding compassion rather than profit.

        As many studies show, in terms of bottom-line fiscal contributions to the BC economy, PHS and other non-profits contribute as much as, and with few exceptions vastly more, almost any private enterprise. At the same time, not even their most critical opponents are questioning the quality of PHS service or service implementation.

        Given that PHS is well within their discretionary administrative spending, and consistently achieve superior results through unconventional methods, logic seems to dictate that rather than deposing them, other non-profits might want to think about emulating them.

        Where I think we see eye to eye is in the optics of the situation (no pun intended). PHS radical (and effective) approach to social issues has left them with too many enemies and, in the wake of the BC Liberals winning the last election, not enough friends.

        Which has been my point from the beginning- this is largely personal and political. When you’re as adversarial as the PHS has been, it’s vital to be squeaky clean, and have everything perfectly documented. On the other hand, what accounting box do you put advocacy in, and all of the other vital but non-traditional avenues of spending the PHS has routinely participated in?

        Really, this talk could go on forever, as it’s not a black and white issue. I believe in the PHS, the work they’ve done, and the work they will hopefully continue to do. It’s not my intention to disregard the criticisms of how PHS has operated- I feel this is an important learning opportunity.

        In many ways the PHS won the fight to implement harm reduction services, and because of that the era of needing to have an adversarial attitude is over, and with progressive parties working within VCH, cooperation is much more feasible than it once was.

        While I strongly believe it was a mistake to fire (rather than reprimand) the four senior managers, I believe that if BC Housing and VCH honour their commitments to keep the spirit of the PHS alive, within a more fiscally responsible model, by utilizing rather than replacing current management and honouring current service agreements, there is still a lot of hope.

  5. Your insinuation is obvious – anyone who doesn’t support PHS is a Judas. You people are really adding insult to injury. The PHS will be investigated. The RCMP are being called in. The truth will come out . . .

    As is it written: “Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes.”

    • The question was “Who am I in the biblical story? Where will I stand?” PHS is not Judas; the government is not Judas; whether I support PHS or not does not make me Judas.

      What I learn from the story is that Jesus asks us to be vigilant in thinking and rethinking our priorities and our understandings. He especially challenged those in power, encouraging them to guard that power carefully.

      I encourage us, the public, to stand with neither the PHS nor the government. We need to stand with the people – especially the poor. Politicians find it hard to do that when they are pulled in so many directions, often by others with power. From your scripture, we could just as easily say that the government often seems to sell the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of (new budget?) shoes, but we don’t win if that’s where we focus.

      As public, we must urge our politicians to do what is right, even if it is not popular or profitable. Jesus would call us to take care of our neighbours, and that includes the poorest of the poor.

  6. Al,
    Well said dear friend. None of us can survive an audit – before either God or human.
    All of us are mixed in motive even when we , by God’s grace, help others.

    • Well said Al, but why are people not seeing the obvious? The leadership at the PHS spent money in a way that ordinary people do not or cannot do. It leaves us disgusted.

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