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Empowering Change: A Conversation with Matthew Smedley of Mission Possible

Portrait of Matthew Smedley

Executive Director & CEO

Key Takeaways

  • Matthew Smedley used to blame people for their circumstances. He used to believe that poverty is a choice. But he soon realized that the problem was much more complex than he previously believed.

  • Smedley was never really exposed to extreme poverty in his life, but when he came face to face with the reality of the situation, he realized he needed to do something about it.

  • He went through a personal transformation when he began to understand the struggle of the underprivileged community and found his calling for social service and joined Mission Possible.

  • Mission Possible is an organization dedicated to transforming lives by helping those who are facing low income, living with disabilities, homelessness, substance use, or other barriers to employment. 

Understanding the Complexity of Poverty

Matthew Smedley didn’t grow up thinking he would be working with a charity organization, much less running it himself. He grew up in a rural part of Pennsylvania and was privileged enough to never come in direct contact with poverty, addiction, or physical disabilities. He says he didn’t really understand poverty growing up and placed the blame for the situation on the people going through it. He used to believe that poverty was a choice for people who didn’t work hard enough or made grave mistakes in their lives. As he grew older, he realized that this myth was not true for anyone in life, especially for those struggling with poverty. 

The challenges of breaking the cycle of poverty are incredibly hard, says Matt. He says the first thing one needs to solve this complex problem is to develop a desire to understand it. Matthew was first exposed to the dire poverty in urban areas when he moved to Vancouver. For him, it was a big learning opportunity as it completely changed his understanding of intergenerational poverty, addiction, disability, and individuals experiencing such circumstances. It greatly impacted him, so in an attempt to understand the problems on-ground, he began volunteering for the impoverished community in downtown Vancouver.

Volunteering for the community changed the course of Matt’s life. He believes connecting with a struggling community has the power to change an individual, and that’s what happened to him. Matt spent a lot of time getting to know the community, hearing their stories, and developing a deeper understanding of what life is like for them and how they got to where they are. He often found himself thinking, “If I was in that situation, I don’t know if I could make it, to be quite honest.” Smedley soon realized that poverty was anything but a choice and decided to dedicate his life to helping those who needed it the most. 

“The underprivileged community is full of incredible people who have endured some incredible hardships in life, and their resilience is inspirational.”   —  Matthew Smedley 

Bridging Gaps in Society With Mission Possible 

Matt Smedley currently serves as the fourth Executive Director and CEO of Mission Possible (MP), having been invited to volunteer by the second Executive Director. Initially founded in 1992 as a faith-based humanitarian agency, Mission Possible has since evolved into a community economic development agency operating in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The main goal of Mission Possible is to support individuals struggling with poverty, disability, and addiction and help them get to a sustainable livelihood. They provide transitional work experience and community to people facing barriers to employment so they can enter the workforce. 

The organization offers different services and social enterprises for the underprivileged. Their Employment Readiness Program (ERP) offers skills training, employment support, and work experience so they can transition into permanent employment. Their MP Maintenance program provides employment training and short-term employment in property maintenance tasks such as graffiti removal, painting, and window washing. MP Neighbours is another social enterprise under Mission Possible, offering safety services like outreach, referrals, and needle pick-ups throughout Vancouver. Finally, Mission Possible’s Power Breakfast is a weekend meal service for those Downtown Eastside community members who wish to build connections with MP before joining their Employment Readiness Program. 

Growing Problems of the Community

Matt believes gentrification is the most pressing problem the Downtown Eastside community faces. Gentrification happens slowly and over time, resulting in the poor urban population of an area being pushed out. When wealthier people move into an area, it improves housing and attracts new business, but it also displaces the current inhabitants in the process. 

“Gentrification is creating more challenges for low-income individuals. A large number of individuals experiencing poverty live in the Downtown Eastside because it's one of the places where you can find low-cost housing. There are thousands of rooms in century-old hotels here that are run down and in despair but turned into housing for these individuals. It’s not ideal, but it’s all they have.”   — Matthew Smedley

The general shifts in our economy, such as rising housing prices, are the most tough on those struggling with poverty. There are also many other problems, like inadequate healthcare and a total lack of mental healthcare, which leads people to self-medicate through drug abuse. The current housing crisis in Canada is also directly responsible for the increasing number of the homeless population. Matt believes it will take some real political will to resolve the housing problem for those with no-to-low income. 

How You Can Get Involved 

On a collective level, Matt tells us that the government putting in money to create affordable housing will actually burden the economy less than keeping those struggling with poverty unhoused. He reflects that fiscally, it costs the government more in emergency services, community support programs, and healthcare costs for the homeless than building adequate housing. He believes if the general public was more aware of this, they could really help bring about a powerful systemic change in the lives of those stricken with poverty by electing officials who are committed to the cause of caring for all citizens while reducing overall government spending. 

“You can explore opportunities for engagement. You can volunteer. Get to know them and hear their stories. Begin by building relationships with the community. Gain first-hand knowledge of the situation. All of this is powerful enough to equip you with the right tools for long-term impact on their lives.”   —  Matthew Smedley 

On an individual level, Matt believes the best thing you can do for the underprivileged community is to try to understand the complexities of poverty, the trauma experienced by those going through it, and ways to rehabilitate them into a sustainable livelihood. That is one of the first steps you can take toward shifting the stigma, stereotypes, and misunderstandings surrounding impoverished communities. You can stop thinking it's their fault or that they’re lazy and begin to approach the subject with some openness and understanding. 


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