The Awesome Awards - Nominations

Karen O’Shannacery

Nominated by Lani Johnson (Lookout Emergency Aid Society)
May 16, 2014
Karen has been an inspiration, a mentor and relentless in helping those experiencing homelessness.  Her advocacy and passion have been just awesome.  This is why we are nominating her for an Awesome Award.

Karen ran away from home at 14 to escape from the poverty and conflict in her home.  After wearing out her welcome on the couches and floors of various friends in Richmond, where she’d lived with her family, she spent some time in Vancouver before going hitchhiking, making it as far east as Toronto and as far south as San Francisco. “It was a fabulous time in many ways,” she says now, looking back on it. “I slept in some of the best parks across the country,” she adds, half-jokingly.

At the age of 18, O’Shannacery’s life began to change, she started working as “a kid helping kids” in a Vancouver downtown youth shelter. 

She also noticed the long lines of mostly older men waiting out back at the youth shelter every day, desperate for but unable to receive the help that the youth passing through weren’t interested in, as the shelter could only serve those under 21. They snuck food out to them through the back, but couldn’t do much more.

She and John Albro, a coworker at the shelter, managed to get a six-month grant from the government to help house the homeless not being served by the current services, like the older men waiting out back of the shelter every night. “You know, we figured if we got the grant, we’d be able to cure homelessness in 10 years!” she says, and laughs.

They hired six men and six women, and in January of 1971, began renting a room every night at the Hotel Patricia, an East Hastings single-room-occupancy hotel only a few blocks from O’Shannacery’s current office. They called it the Lookout Society, because they wanted to “look out” for the people on the street. O’Shannacery was finally doing the type of work she’d hungered for while working at the youth shelter.

Karen has been the Executive Director of the Lookout Society for over 43 years where over 10,000 people a year get the help they need.  She has overseen the growth of its services from a single shelter to over 19 housing projects throughout the Downtown Eastside, the North Shore, New Westminster and Burnaby.

As well as her professional achievements, this Order of British Columbia recipient is a grandmother, a proud pet owner to an affectionate tabby cat and plays in a recreational softball league, where she met her husband.

Despite the rise in her status, O’Shannacery has never forgotten the extraordinary circumstances from which she came. The dignity O’Shannacery has earned in her years of service to the greater good, clearly comes from a life devoted to a cause she believes in.

With notes from the Georgia Straight and