Recent surges in Chilliwack’s homeless and addicted populations have been expensive and exhaustive for the community.
There have been so many calls into city hall to demanding someone fix the complex problem, City of Chilliwack reps invited all the community partners and government reps to the Nov. 30 meeting to systematically explain what is being done, and to remind folks there is no easy fix.
The added costs of security, cleanups, needle removal, and more have forced officials to act.
A polite crowd of about 120 attended the Homelessness Community Information Meeting Wednesday at Evergreen Hall to hear an elaborate array of programs, grants and approaches to problem-solving by various agencies.
In terms of collaboration, Chilliwack has had a 42-member Chilliwack Healthier Community network in place, whose goals mirror those of the Chilliwack Homelessness Action Plan, so the community is working from the same play-book to a great degree.
There was a lot of myth-busting going on at the meeting.
Some themes offered by speakers to tune everyone up:
• No single agency is responsible to fix the problem.
• No one can be forced off the streets into a shelter bed.
• No one can be forced into treatment for substance use.
• No one can be arrested for being homeless.
• Not all theft can be attributed to homeless.
“One issue where we’ve learned a lesson, at both the encampment at Empress Lane, and Railway Avenue, were around actions of well-meaning people who drop off food for the homeless. Their good intent is obvious,” noted Glen MacPherson, director of Operations for City of Chilliwack.
But it takes away incentive for these individuals to get their meals at agencies like Salvation Army where they can also be connected with additional services or treatment options.
In these cases it’s “better to give a hand up rather than a handout,” he said quoting Tim Bohr, director of community ministries for Chilliwack Salvation Army.
Chilliwack-Hope MP Mark Strahl send a video message about changes to federal funding to address homelessness that at least two local groups area applying for.
“I will continue to apply pressure to make sure Chilliwack gets its fair share of funding,” said Strahl in his message. A federal strategy is being mapped out at letstalkhousing.ca
The meeting saw calls for more treatment beds closer to home, which everyone has heard, as well as some new ideas, and hopes for new detox facilities.
One example of an idea that is fresh was a suggestion that “retractable needles” be explored by health authorities to keep the public safe from accidental needle-sticks from regular needles, but it was acknowledged it is a more expensive option.
The sharps containers installed in porta-potties have cut down on the discarded needles, but city crews and security still collect 300 needles from its parks and public spaces every week.
There was hint about a “start” to creating an intensive case management team for Chilliwack, with some positions already in place and a request for proposals for a detox facility.
“The city has been asked on a few occasions what it has achieved with its plan.”
The answer is that so quite a bit has been accomplished, and the conditions are in place to see improvements.
Chilliwack has seen increased rental subsidy funding, more shelter beds, more affordable housing projects planned.
With ‘housing first’ as the philosophy guiding Chilliwack and most communities struggling with homeless surges and addictions across B.C., the goal is more low-rent units with fewer barriers.
It’s no secret city officials would like to see a fully funded intensive care management (ICM) team, with outreach support directed to the streets.
Dominic Flanagan, executive director of Supportive Housing for B.C. has the provincial responsibility to address the housing of homeless people.
“Homelessness continues to be a significant challenge for communities across B.C.,” he said, whether it’s homeless individuals or homeless camps. “It’s a challenging trend including here in Chilliwack.”
In communities like Chilliwack with one main shelter for those who are homeless or at risk of being homeless, they are looking to develop more minimum barrier options.
“We want to make sure that shelter can engage with the most vulnerable and get them inside, with support services to recovery treatment and other community based programs.”
The “pet issue” is a huge barrier for those on the street, Flanagan said.
Stan Kuperis, director of mental health and substance use, for Fraser Health explained the Riverstone program, offering detox on an outreach basis.
He listed the range of treatment options in the region.
“We have the start of an ICM team,” he said referring to hiring an outreach nurse full time, and more.
“It’s important to clarify that all substance abuse services are voluntary,” said Kuperis.
The outreach workers can “move them toward” treatment, but there is no way of compelling anyone to enter it.
“Yes we need more detox and residential treatment beds,” he said, noting there are a range of new beds coming.
Supt. Deanne Burleigh kept gently reminding folks, who ask what RCMP are doing, that a police officer can’t just arrest someone for being homeless.
“I must have lawful grounds,” she said.
She also threw it out that that “not all theft in Chilliwack can be attributed to homelessness,” and in fact pointed to stats that show in terms of property crime it’s directly attributable to prolific offenders with a residence, by 75%, and only 25% by someone who may not have a home.
Police are zeroed in on prolific offenders, with steely-eyed focus.
They are out there doing curfew checks, street checks and checking hotspots.
“We walk through the homeless camps, through the downtown core and we walk through your neighbourhood. Safety of the public is paramount,” said Supt. Burleigh.
“Everyone here has a part of play.”
Mayor Sharon Gaetz said homelessness has become the most perplexing issue council has ever faced, and they’re working with partners on as many fronts as possible.