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Homeless Population Spikes in Abbotsford

Fraser Valley city quashed a low-barrier supportive housing facility in February.

By Emi Sasagawa, 13 May 2014, TheTyee.ca

Homeless Park

Abbotsford gained national attention last summer after city workers dumped chicken manure at a homeless camp.

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Homeless people in Abbotsford have had a tough year.

It began last summer, when the city received international attention after city workers dumped chicken manure at a homeless camp. The City later apologized for the incident.

Then, earlier this year, Abbotsford council quashed a supportive housing project that could have put a roof over the heads of 20 men, most of whom currently live on the streets.

Today, figures released by the Fraser Valley Homeless Count show the number of homeless people in the city has increased.

In Abbotsford and neighbouring Mission, it increased by 29 per cent and 39 per cent respectively, while in Chilliwack it decreased by 34 per cent.

Change at the regional level has been flat, with 346 persons counted in 2014 compared to 345 in 2011. Of the total, 73 per cent are currently living unsheltered.

"Although we are making progress, the data shows that there is still more work to be done," said Sharon Gaetz, Fraser Valley Regional District Board Chair.

The count found that 104 people living on the street in Fraser Valley are on welfare, with just over eight per cent reporting no income.

When those counted were asked what prevented them from finding permanent housing, 158 people, or 45.7 per cent, identified the lack of affordable housing as the biggest barrier.

The results released today are preliminary figures, with the final report scheduled for release later this year.

Ward Draper, a pastor with 5 and 2 Ministries that tends to the Abbotsford's homeless population, said this year's numbers reflect the community's reality.

"Ten years ago, there were about 700 registered users in our Food Bank. As of today there are 7,000 and growing," said the pastor. "There has got to be something that can be done."

Low-barrier facility funds hang in the balance

Homelessness is an issue Abbotsford has grappled with for years. But the problem gained a national audience last summer after city workers dumped chicken manure at a homeless camp.

Like any other municipality, the city struggles with gentrification, a lack of supportive services and a lack of affordable housing, said Draper.

"In the last couple of weeks I have talked to at least a dozen folks who would be inside today if [they] could find a cheap place."

Abbotsford doesn't need just any type of affordable housing, said councillor Patricia Ross. It needs "housing first" facilities that allow people with addictions and untreated mental illnesses to be housed, without having to make commitments to undergo treatment.

"One of our main challenges for dealing with homelessness is the lack of low-barrier housing," she said.

Earlier this year, the councillor voted in favour of a provincially-funded facility proposed by Abbotsford Community Services to address the issue.

The project, which was ultimately shot down by city council, aimed to provide a living space for 20 hard-to-house men. Opponents, including Mayor Bruce Banman, said they were concerned about the facility's effect on crime rates in the downtown area, where many businesses are located.

Ross remains hopeful that funding for the 20-bed facility, already approved by BC Housing, could be applied to a low-barrier housing project in another location.

'Abbotsford is doing what it can do'

Ron Van Wyk, a director with the Mennonite Central Committee and coordinator of the count, said the city has made some progress on homelessness.

"In the last number of years we have seen new facilities, such as the Christie Lamb Residence, which have contributed to an increase in the availability of affordable housing options," he said.

In March 2014, Abbotsford also created a Task Force on Homelessness, of which Ross and Van Wyk are members, to work with the community in designing a responsive plan.

The task force had its first meeting at the beginning of April. "Right now, we are looking at what other cities and countries are doing and trying to see if they can be adapted for our context," said Ross.

Members are also considering creating a homelessness advocate position, the councillor said.

"Abbotsford is doing what it can do," said Van Wyk. "It's trying hard to find solutions within the limitations it has."

Pastor Draper isn't optimistic. "To me, it's just another committee. It doesn't even have the main community service providers represented. I don't trust it yet," said Draper.

High vacancies at too high a cost: Graves

The issues faced by Abbotsford speak to a nation-wide housing crisis.

"The cause of homelessness in Saint John's, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver is the same," said Judy Graves, retired advocate for the homeless in the City of Vancouver. "We are not building enough facilities dedicated for the poor and low-income people."

In the past, individuals under financial stress would have been told to move to smaller municipalities where housing costs are lower, said Graves. Today, this solution could be easily challenged.

"Abbotsford, for example, has a fairly high vacancy rate in rental housing but not at the lower income level. So there are units for rent, but the poor can't afford them."

According to Graves, there used to be a belief that housing built for the rich would trickle down to the poor. But that is not true anymore. Instead, housing built for the poor is trickling up to the middle class, leaving those with the lowest income with fewer options, she said.

As cities like Abbotsford struggle to house low-income people, Van Wyk and Draper wonder about the next steps forward.

"In Abbotsford, we need more money to fund new health services and affordable housing projects. Funding is a big thing. But that's the story across Canada," Van Wyk said.

Affordable housing faces "no shortage of roadblocks," said Draper.

"We have got to open our minds to be a little bit more imaginative of how housing could look like and where it could go and how fast we can do it," said Draper.

"Everyone from your average citizen to Harper has a responsibility to engage in these issues," he added. "We are all responsible."  [Tyee]

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