Chilliwack is reeling from a sudden influx of homeless people with addictions— especially the sudden appearance of so many discarded needles.
Coun. Ken Popove, who chairs the mayor’s Housing First Committee, and also co-chairs the Chilliwack Healthier Community said everyone is trying to “get a handle” on it.
It’s getting so bad he’s been approached at his place of work.
“It’s been a tough day. I had half a dozen people in here today who said they were concerned about the safety issues in parks,” he said Wednesday.
That has created a sense of urgency.
“People are mad, we get that,” he said. “We feel their pain.”
He wants the public to know they are actively seeking solutions, and bringing various groups to the table to tackle the issues.
“We know it’s a community problem,” said Popove.
But Chilliwack is not unique in experiencing this surge in homelessness. Every community in the Lower Mainland has rising numbers.
A recent change to Chilliwack’s park bylaws allowed officials to enact specific restrictions about homeless in parks, such as when they can stay, and where exactly, and what structures they can put up.
Several B.C. cities have followed provincial case law in this way and changed their bylaws accordingly to remove bans of homeless camping in parks when there are no shelter beds available.
Council nonetheless feels the pressure to respond to the crisis, as do other agencies on the front lines.
“When you think back, a year and a half ago we never talked about needles. Now it’s all we talk about,” he noted.
Discussions are in the works to bring together all agencies, including those who distribute clean needles, such as the HIV/Hep C Prevention and Harm Reduction Program out of the blue bus.
Popove went to visit the harm reduction blue bus, parked as it usually is in the parking lot behind Five Corners, where clean needles are handed out, and used ones accepted back.
“I found out that in the last quarter, the needle exchange took in 32,000 needles,” Popove said.
That’s 102 per cent above what was handed out. They know because they document each and every one.
“So they are definitely collecting more needles than they give out,” he said.
The needle exchange will also hand out sharps/biohazard containers, and information sheets on what to do when people find needles, and how to safely dispose of them.
Residents’ and parents complaints are the needles being found are flowing to officials at different levels of government.
Despite removal on a regular basis by everyone from bylaw officers, Griffin security, and City of Chilliwack’s Litter Crew, there are still hundreds of needles found around town every week.
It has gone down since the installation of porta-potties with sharps containers.
“It was slow start but the numbers collected from there is on the rise, according to our operations’ crew,” he said.
What does the city councillor attribute as the reason for the recent influx to Chilliwack of transients and drug addicts?
The last homeless count showed there were less than 75 people. Latest estimates puts it at upwards of 300 people. Of course not all homeless are drug addicts, but many are.
“It’s just been a tsunami lately,” said Coun. Popove. “We ask ourselves the same questions, where are they coming from? The answer is the East Coast, up country, or up the valley. We can’t point to one reason or one area. It could be the cheap transit; it could be a few different reasons.”
Kamloops council just voted unanimously in favour of a creating a monitored safe injection site.
“I’m in favour of safe injection site for Chilliwack,” said Popove, adding it would have to be accompanied with funding for addictions counselling.
“It’s been proven effective.”
Such a site would give them a safe place to inject the drugs, but more importantly a chance to get help.
“It’s all part of harm reduction. I think we have to look at this in a different way.”