As we come up to our 20th year of low-barrier community banking, Pigeon Park Savings is growing faster than ever.

Pigeon Park Savings was founded in March 2004 just after Four Corners Community Savings closed. Four Corners was a BC government-owned DTES financial institution, created under the leadership of community advocate Jim Green.

When the government closed Four Corners bank in January 2004, there remained a huge need for financial services for low-income people paid by Ministry cheques but effectively excluded from conventional banking.

It just made sense for PHS to step in with its own version. And no better partner for the enterprise could have been wished for than Vancity.

“We still have original members with Four Corners ID cards in their files,” said Pigeon Park Savings branch manager Sharon Buchanan. “People were able to use their ID to start an account here.

While Four Corners had offered mortgages and attempted to integrate business accounts, PPS learned from their predecessor’s challenges and opened with a clear focus on financial literacy.

“We just make it as easy as possible for people to get the service they need.”

Last year, the branch, which PHS manages in partnership with Vancity, had around 5,000 members with a few dozen folks who were not account holders, calling in just to cash cheques.

But now, the branch has almost 7,000 members.  Plus an additional 1,100 people, who are not account holders, regularly call in to cash cheques.  It’s been a period of amazing growth.

“We don’t have the capacity to have any more staff because of the size of our building,” said Sharon. “We have six wickets, plus myself, plus a station at the back. ‘Cheque day’ is a really busy time so we have a ninth person who can take the place of anyone, so staff can take a comfort break without the process losing momentum.”

From the outset, Pigeon Park Savings has operated as a non-profit social service agency with a specific focus on providing low-barrier services.

Like any other bank, PPS must manage risk.  And within those parameters, PPS has found ways to support people who face barriers at other institutions because of ID requirements. PPS accepts expired or photocopied government-issued photo ID and will work with people to obtain copies of the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction’s own photo ID.

Above all, staff patiently work to instill essential financial literacy in people who have never had a bank account before.

“The Ministry has community integration specialists working at the Carnegie Outreach Program who help people experiencing homelessness to set up a Pigeon Park Savings account,” said Sharon (pictured, left). “Service Canada has also signed people up.

“And we’ve grown even more since March 2023 when cheque-cashing places in Vancouver stopped serving customers without ID.”

Sharon has been at the branch since early 2009.  She says she would never have otherwise gone into banking, but could not imagine leaving the branch as the community members have become like family.

“All the paperwork is worth it for seeing the difference this makes to people’s lives,” she said. “Staff here create relationships with people who start to feel more comfortable with us. You see people who have never trusted institutions in the past feel ready to become a member, and it feels great.”

The need for low-barrier financial services is growing throughout the Downtown Eastside and beyond, and word-of-mouth about helpful Pigeon Park Savings is travelling fast.