Join the conversation on addressing homelessness in Chilliwack

Homelessness is complex, requiring collaborative effort as well as funding from senior levels of government to make a difference

John Gray

John Gray

Homelessness is a community issue requiring a community response.

That idea was front and centre at the public meeting at Evergreen Hall on Tuesday night.

About 70 people showed up to hear about the priorities and objectives of the Homelessness Action Plan, now online in draft form.

“Tonight this is our community engagement meeting,” said Karen Stanton, manager of long range planning for City of Chilliwack, who guided the report presentation. “We’re inviting more people in to talk about these issues.”

They will continue to take feedback as the action plan is formalized in the coming months.

Some attendees later said they felt frustrated they weren’t allowed to ask questions or offer opinions during the meeting itself. But they were invited to weigh in on a range of issues by voting with hand-held response clickers, and their responses appeared on a screen automatically, as well as filling out a feedback form at the end of the meeting.

Stanton made it clear the issue is very complex, and going to take concerted efforts by community stakeholders as well as funding and grants from senior levels of government.

“No single agency can tackle this alone,” she said.

There are 42 agencies locally working to prevent homelessness, and to ensure if it exists, it’s a “rare, brief and non-recurring experience,” Stanton said.

Most in the room were surprised to hear that it costs about $160,000 per year in services, such as emergency room visits, for someone chronically living on the streets.

The number one reason people cited as to why they were homeless, according to the respondents to a survey, was “inadequate income” coupled with high rents in Chilliwack. Addictions and criminal activity were actually much lower down on the list of reasons why people weren’t housed, Stanton noted.

John Gray, supportive housing director at Ruth & Naomi’s mission, as well as being a task force member, said it’s become a source of pride that Chilliwack has become a community that others are looking to for guidance because of the coordinated way it has come together.

“We’re beginning to see synergy,” he said about the cooperation shown by 42 agencies in  Chilliwack Healthy Community to tackle homelessness. “We’re onto something significant as we begin to pool our resources.”

Many have been looking to city council and city officials for answers but it’s beyond the scope of one agency. Although the last homeless count came up with a figure of 73 people on the streets in Chilliwack, the real number is thought to be closer to 200 or 250.

So it’s not surprising that increasing the stock of affordable housing was seen as crucial to solving the problem.

Creating a range of safe and affordable options is the main aspect of Housing First, a school of thought that emphasizes housing street-entrenched people first, and then working provide support and solve the issues that put them on the streets in the first place.

“So Housing First isn’t one size fits all,” said task force member Corrine McCabe.

Community support is crucial, as well as an individualized approach.

It also requires a type of buy-in that is the polar opposite of NIMBY — “Yes In My Backyard,” which underlines the importance of community acceptance of neighbourhood facilities.

“They need not to be marginalized,” she said.

James Cairney, one of the meeting attendees, said “educating the public” is probably the first step to fixing things.

“They don’t know why these people are homeless.”

For Barb Wright, she said she came out to the meeting Tuesday night as a member of the Mental Health and Addictions Task Team of Chilliwack Healthy Community, and because she “pays it forward” sometimes by helping out a local street person.

“I thought the plan was very comprehensive,” Wright said. “The only thing I find a bit of a concern, and we didn’t get to ask any questions, is the people who are worse off and on the streets 365 days a year, how do they become aware of what the resources are?”

Many just do not know what is available to them, she said, but they could benefit from having that knowledge.

“Significant work has also been undertaken towards understanding the needs of people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in Chilliwack, and establishing a Housing First strategy for Chilliwack, based on best practices from across North America,” according to the draft plan.

A multi-agency task force was struck in 2015 to develop the Homelessness Action Plan through the Chilliwack Healthier Community partnership, with support from the Chilliwack Social Research and Planning Council.

The action plan goals are in the report, at www.chilliwack.com/homeless and include :

1. Develop and implement an appropriate Housing First approach for Chilliwack;

2. Increase supply of affordable housing in accordance with community needs;

3. Increase coordination between agencies to prevent homelessness;

4. Improve the health and safety of the vulnerable;

5. Increase community awareness of homelessness and build support for solutions; and

6. Support initiatives that build self-esteem and support economic self sufficiency.