What is Chilliwack doing about housing and homelessness?
For the third year in a row, Chilliwack Healthier Community (CHC) members were treated to a series of success stories and housing updates over breakfast at the Oct. 22 meeting at the Neighbourhood Learning Centre.
A series of CHC presenters tried to answer the perennial question of what’s being done to counter the rampant homelessness and addiction in the streets of Chilliwack since the number of people living on the streets exploded.
There were the latest details on both supportive housing projects (90 units), affordable housing (80), as well as housing for women (22), housing for families/parents (36) and the Housing Hub (27).
A personal story of triumph came from “Ernie,” a new resident of the Yale Road supportive housing, who told the roomful of people how grateful he is to have a place of his own, after two years of being homeless.
“Thank you,” Ernie said, describing his path getting off the streets as “a long, tough journey.”
“Without the help of the Salvation Army, I would never be where I am at today.
“I was down and out on the streets of Chilliwack. I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from. Now I am very thankful every day for the roof over my head.”
His words packed a punch but he spoke them very softly.
“I have 13 months clean and sober,” Ernie told the group, which broke out in applause, as he offered his thanks to the many who helped get him there.
What is Chilliwack doing?
Pressure to address rising homelessness in Chilliwack came to a head in the three short years after the homeless count of 2014 in which 73 people self-identified as homeless. The number of unhoused skyrocketed to 221 in 2017, and beleaguered residents and downtown businesses were pushed to the breaking point. The backdrop for exploding numbers of people in the streets was the rapid rise of real estate values, renovictions and an extremely low vacancy rate for Chilliwack’s rental housing.
City of Chilliwack has been working with its many CHC partners to implement the Homelessness Action Plan, since it was approved in 2016, said Mike Sikora, social development coordinator for City of Chilliwack, who emceed the breakfast meeting.
“These housing projects do not happen overnight,” Sikora underlined.
Many of the housing projects coming to fruition right now, whether it’s affordable, supportive or subsidized housing, were actually kickstarted years ago. Almost every project of substance has come together through concerted collaboration and partnerships forged through the CHC network.
Although homelessness and housing are provincial responsibilities, the city has been involved since day one, behind the scenes and up front, taking action in areas where it can, like expediting certain processes.
The guiding principle for city officials, and the CHC, was boldly implementing the Housing First model, which is about moving rapidly to get someone housed and stabilized before providing access to health and social services.
“It means not waiting to have all the boxes checked before they get off the sidewalk, basically. We’ve worked really hard at that,” Sikora said, adding that partnerships have allowed the city to dramatically increase the inventory of various types of affordable, subsidized and supportive housing.
City officials put $700,000 from its reserves toward this supportive housing facility, which had been earmarked for Chilliwack’s first major ‘housing first’ facility.
Yale Road/Trethewey Supportive Housing
First up among the presenters last Tuesday was RainCity Housing’s Laura Caron, director of clinical services, co-leading the ICM team, who updated everyone on the Yale Road supportive housing project that opened at the end of May.
The 46 units in the new modular housing run by RainCity have been completely full since it opened, Caron said. The second project of its kind, the Trethewey supportive housing, is coming online in the next month with another 46 people to be welcomed into those brand-new units.
“We selected tenants from community referrals,” Caron said. Each resident has a 220 square-foot bachelor, a kitchenette and a full private washroom.
“We weren’t looking for easy tenants. The priority was high risk individuals but we worked to find a balance of diversity in the building.”
The community programs getting underway in the building include one that focuses on volunteering in the community, as well as peer services of sharing lived experiences. They are staffed around the clock and offer meals and health care with visits from physicians and psychiatrists.
“We’ve trying to create opportunities for the folks who live in the building to actually to integrate into the community. It’s become a bit of a lightning rod for all bad things, you know it must be related to RainCity or the folks who live in the building, so we’re taking steps to break up that type of thinking,” Caron added.
She credits the unique collaborative approach of the CHC which brings so many stakeholders to the table.
“Collaboration is key and we cannot do the work we do without it.”
The Waterstone affordable housing project, behind the Canton Gardens, was under construction the last time Janice Silver, CEO, of Mamele’awt Qweesome/To’o Housing Society was presenting to CHC.
“Since then we have 80 units full,” Silver said.
MQTHS is an urban aboriginal housing society, managing a range of subsidized housing projects across the Fraser Valley for those most in need, serving mainly Indigenous people.
The development would be “rooted in Indigenous culture” according to the marketing, but that units would also be opened to non-Indigenous individuals and families.
One success story she wanted to share had to do with a partnership created between MQTHS and the Housing Hub, which saw two clients of the Housing Hub moving into in the brand-new Waterstone.
“I can’t say enough good things about the (Housing Hub) program,” Silver said. “The support is wonderful.”
The tenants fit in so well in the building, she said, that it helped win over some of the Waterstone staff who were reluctant at first to get involved with Hub clients.
“Now we’re going to take two more,” Silver said.
City of Chilliwack received high praise from Silver for how quickly the permitting process went in Chilliwack once it was expedited by city officials, as opposed to the delays experienced in Abbotsford trying to get a similar affordable housing project built.
“Huge kudos to the City of Chilliwack for making our experience here so different,” she said, contrasting it with the Abbotsford building experience, which she described as a “huge pain” that left them with empty lots, delayed building permits and extra charges.
The Portal and the RAN Family Centre
The Family Centre built by Ruth & Naomi’s Mission and The Portal shelter are two projects covered by Cory Buettner during the CHC meeting, as RAN’s director of community programs.
Calling The Portal “the elephant down the street,” Buettner clarified that it never was a “warming centre” but a “navigation” centre, opened in direct response to what was happening downtown.
Now 45 folks can meet service providers in a safe and comfortable space, and start building relationships.
“When they come in, they know they’re in a safe space. That opens up the conversation, and they can start to trust in community and trust in relationships.”
They have 36 units in the Family Centre with a total of 35 families living there with wrap-around services like daycare and preschool for RAN clients and the public. There are meals, and shelter services, but there is also a street clinic and other health services on certain days, with women’s recovery coming next year.
“We’ve been pretty packed,” Buettner.
Specialized shelter by ADTS
The Specialized Women’s Shelter Program was introduced by Shelley Bolan, transition house manager for Ann Davis Transition Society, which features 22 beds in a low-barrier shelter with a home setting for women fleeing domestic violence or facing homelessness.
“It’s been remarkable,” she said about the new program. She also gave a nod to the original transition house that’s been helping women to stay safe and leave violent situations in Chilliwack for 38 years.
At the Specialized Shelter, between April and September, there were 2,085 bed spaces taken, Bolan said.
In terms of success stories, she said two of their clients were currently enrolled in training to get their trade tickets.
“That is because they have a roof over their heads,” Bolan added.
“The Transition Continuum” presentation was from Kathleen Mosa, executive director of Wilma’s Transition Society/Xolhemet Society, who shared details about their transition house and second stage housing programs.
The typical “return rate” is seven or eight times in terms of a woman coming back to the transition house before they feel supported enough to leave their domestic situation, she noted. And most will return, but with the second-stage housing, the return rate is only five per cent.
“We have just purchased a property on Vedder Road,” said Mosa, about plans for more independent living space, which will provide “safe, secure housing that is really affordable.”
Mosa’s success story was about a client who was dropped off years ago by her husband at the transition house, and eventually moved on to living in second-stage housing. She worked closely with transition staff, and the one-time client gained confidence, started volunteering for Wilma’s. She studied, participated in outreach group, and ended up being successfully hired to work with them.
Housing with care
Most of the clients of the Housing Hub have been homeless for more than a year, and they get referred by community agencies.
“We connect them to two types of housing,” said Graham McMahon, Housing Hub supervisor for Pacific Community Resources Society, mentioning congregate housing, and independent housing.
Housed in small groups or independently, the clients who are mostly homeless, or at imminent risk of being homeless, receive ongoing support from Housing Hub staff until their lives have become stabilized. Housing Hub staff also work with landlords to ensure any problems are dealt with swiftly.