Concerted efforts to bring people off the streets in Chilliwack is slowly starting to work.
The 2014 Homelessness Survey report was presented at the Fraser Valley Regional District meeting Tuesday, showing a decrease of 34 per cent for Chilliwack’s homeless population.
There were 111 homeless people who talked to volunteers in Chilliwack during the 2011 count, but that number dropped to 73 in 2014.
“This report is positive for Chilliwack and demonstrates that, although we still have a ways to go, we are making progress in addressing the complex variety of issues that result in homelessness,” said Mayor Sharon Gaetz.
When volunteers combed the bushes and backstreets of Chilliwack during the 2014 count, they found 38 fewer people self-identifying as homeless than the last time, according to FVRD numbers.
Chilliwack was the only community aside from Hope in the region to see a decrease in its homeless numbers last year — something not lost on Mayor Gaetz.
“Affordable housing is an opportunity the City of Chilliwack has been diligently working on for over 14 years, starting with our Downtown Social Issues Action Plan in 2001,” she said.
In the past decade, Chilliwack has built up its capacity to house the homeless: Cyrus Centre (8 youth); Ruth and Naomi’s Mission – Emergency shelter (15‐20 beds); First and Second Stage Residence (26 beds); The Village on School Street (24 units); Health and Housing Contact Centre (22 beds).
The mayor points to the consistently collaborative effort in Chilliwack for any success they’re seeing, but adds that the high proportion of homeless youth uncovered in the survey is still a big concern.
“We’re very happy Cyrus Centre has opened its youth shelter,” she noted. “But I still think there is more we need to be doing.”
One of the major obstacles for city reps is that homelessness is not technically in the city purview, rather it’s a provincial or federal issue, Gaetz said.
But stakeholders have been networking for years on the issue of affordable housing, and city officials try to leverage support, and help in any way they can.
Studies dating back to 2004, 2008 and 2011 show that the various Chilliwack area programs offering shelter beds, both subsidized and supportive housing are slowly making a big difference.
Multi barrier issues of the homeless, from addictions and mental illness to chronic health conditions are an ongoing challenge.
The report recommends that cities adopt the ‘Housing First’ model, focused on evidence based solutions that can create more permanent as well as second stage housing. It’s more of an integrated approach with extra support services provided in addition to housing. It’s also recognition that shelters on their own might not do the trick, and some of the existing barriers need to be overcome.
“We know there is evidence to support Housing First as a model for our community,” Gaetz said. “I think it could work, but it’s dependent on future support from senior levels of government.”
In talking to local street people, they’ve heard concerns about leaving belongings to enter an emergency shelter for the night, or the requirements to be drug-free.
“Housing of our homeless population has to come with wrap-around services. We can’t just put them in a shelter and hope for the best,” the mayor offered.
Chilliwack officials and stakeholder groups are looking into possibilities to advance the integrated care model, she said.
The whole region was flat, with 346 in 2014, down by one from 345 in 2011. The breakdown shows Abbotsford marked a spike going from 117 homeless to 151, while Mission’s numbers went from 54 to 75 people.
Hope went from 43 to 22, also marking a decrease from 2011 to 2014.
Agassiz-Harrison stayed the same with 20, and Boston Bar counted five homeless, which is up from zero in 2011.
“For a smaller community, we are doing some things right from my perspective,” said Gaetz. “Our goal is to have no one left homeless in our community. Those who work with the homeless should celebrate what they are doing is making a huge difference in people’s lives.”
The report’s authors concluded: “Challenge in this region is getting support from senior governments – it shouldn’t take a crisis situation to garner attention.”