Homeless numbers are down significantly in Chilliwack compared to the last survey, according to preliminary totals released Tuesday in the 2014 FVRD Homeless Count.
“What we know after doing this now for the fourth time in a decade, is that since 2004 homelessness is not just a Metro Vancouver issue, it is indeed an issue here in our communities as well,” said Ron Van Wyk, Homeless Count research coordinator, in a presentation Tuesday to FVRD Regional and Corporate Services Committee.
Last time they conducted the survey in Chilliwack in 2011, there were 111 who self-identified as homeless, but that total dipped to only 73 people in the 2014 Homeless Count.
The homeless count is a “snapshot” or moment-in-time survey, conducted at the same time as the Metro Vancouver count over a 24-hour period in March.
The total of homeless people living in the FVRD has remained “fairly flat,” from 2011 to 2014, Van Wyk said, with the numbers notching up from 345 to 346.
It’s still well below the record high for the region of 465 homeless enumerated in 2008.
Across the region, homelessness rose to some degree in Abbotsford, Mission and Boston Bar.
When asked what would end their plight of being homeless, the answer most often given not surprisingly was “affordable housing.”
From 2011 to 2014, Abbotsford went from a count of 117 homeless to 151, while Mission’s numbers went from 54 to 75 people.
Hope went from 43 to 22, also marking a decrease in the homeless population.
Agassiz-Harrison remained the same with 20 people, and Boston Bar found five people homeless, which is up from zero in 2011.
“Overall it is fairly stable, and so it’s plausible to argue the reason why it remains stable I would think is that there are organizations that do a lot of creative stuff.”
Partnerships and MOUs established between local governments and BC Housing were given the nod, which have resulted in “several new facilities and services in the past six years,” Van Wyk said.
Since 2008, local governments, service agencies, government ministries and volunteer groups have been proactively working to reduce the number of people on the streets. Local initiatives include housing outreach assistance, street nurses, improved shelter programs, and housing linked to supportive services.
He mentioned the School Street project in Chilliwack, the Christine Lamb facility in Abbotsford, as well as facilities in Mission that have come on-stream.
“All that work contributes to the fact that the numbers remain more or less the same,” he said.
“We still have work to do but I think we need to take some bit of encouragement, or hope from the fact that the numbers are not running away on us.”
About 32 per cent told volunteers they were born and raised in the FVRD area, while a bigger proportion, 68 per cent come to valley from outside the region.
There are more men than women who are homeless, and most at 73 per cent are considered “unsheltered,” which is the technical term for living on the streets.
A significant proportion are on welfare, about 30 per cent, while 13 per cent receive disability benefits, other are binning or bottle recycling.
“Also interesting to note that there are also a few that do part-time employment, and even some that work full-time.”
Many reported living with health conditions, such as asthma, arthritis or hypertension.
Similar to previous findings nationwide, a significant proportion, or 22 per cent, self reported struggling with mental health illnesses or issues.
“We know from service providers too that the prevalence of people having a mental health issue is quite high among people who living homeless, and presents a big challenge to those of us providing services.”
Those who say they struggle with mental health and addictions put together are a significant number at 64.2 per cent.
It’s a “challenging” situation and also by definition a health issue.
“As leaders and people concerned about this, a big part of this for people living homeless, and the solution to it, relates to health services and health issues,” said Van Wyk, who is also associate ED of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
The survey is sponsored by the FVRD, with the MCC of BC managing overall coordination, volunteer training, data capturing, statistical analysis and reporting.
FVRD Chair Sharon Gaetz, who is also Chilliwack Mayor, said they very much appreciated the regional data that the survey provides.
“We’ve been watching the trend go down, which is comforting for the politicians sitting around the table. Some things are going right, and partnerships are part of it,” she said.
One stat surprised her — that over 40 per cent suffer from some sort of addiction problem, yet only 5.7% per cent said they thought that addiction was the reason why they were homeless.
“Yes, I noted that too, and I’ve noted it in the past too,” said Van Wyk. “It’s a case of people recognizing that they have an addiction issue. That’s one thing.
“It’s another thing to say, ‘I need to find a way to deal with it.’ I think it’s just human nature to not own up to things, or we find ways to rationalize.
“We know from study after study across Canada, for 15 years if not two decades, there are a significant number of people who live homeless are living with substance abuse issues,” said Van Wyk.
“But from what we know there has to be willingness to deal with their issues before anything can happen. If that’s not there, there not much we can do.”
In terms of finding solutions, Van Wyk listed: increased health services; access to physicians; more treatment facilities; and support for those coming out of incarceration.
“We have to help provide a net that can catch them, that they can land on, to give them an on-ramp to supportive housing. Sometime the net has a few holes in it when they come out of incarceration, and they end up living where they’re living.”
Van Wyk was careful how he phrased things.
“I don’t say this in a derogatory way, but those who are living homeless, they are messed up,” he said.
Many have had unconventional childhoods with “unbelievable forms of abuse.”
What is needed in the wake of closed institutions in B.C., is “humane institutionalization,” and a way to deal with the culture of substance abuse, and to continue to “love, and care, and show compassion” for those facing the condition of homelessness.
“It’s not that some people have chosen to become homeless. It’s that some of us are more resilient than others.”
Some just “buckle under.”