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Northern exposure: Prince George’s homeless services pushed to the brink

Inside a small aboriginal drop-in centre in Prince George called The Fire Pit, a group of about 20 homeless men and women try to stay warm on a cold Monday afternoon by playing crib or drinking coffee. With temperatures dropping below minus 20 degrees outside, no one dares braving the great outdoors.

Luckily, downtown has enough shelters and drop-in centres downtown to give the city’s homeless some respite from the cold. But Prince George’s growing homeless population is starting to put a strain on the centres’ ability to serve them.

“About a year ago we served [lunch and dinner to] about 40 to 50 people a day,” says Violet Bozoki, the elder support worker at The Fire Pit. “Now it’s 200 a day.”

While Vancouver, and particularly the Downtown Eastside, continues to dominate the province’s poverty discourse, cities and towns across northern British Columbia are struggling to deal with their own homelessness crisis.

In a town of just 70,000, a one-day homeless count by the Prince George Community Partners Addressing Homelessness last May found 375 homeless people. Almost every social-service provider in the city, including the organization that performed the count, considers it a severe undercount.

Because of Prince George’s location, it absorbs a lot of homeless people from across northern B.C. More realistically, a 2007 report by NDP MLA David Chudnovsky estimated the number to be around 1,050, which would include couch-surfers and those camping out in the bush during the summer.

Although there is still very little detailed information about the demographics, Prince George social workers say the population is getting younger, is more likely to be addicted to crack or meth and is predominantly native — it is estimated aboriginals make up more than half the city’s homeless even though they make up less than 10 per cent of the city’s population.

Unless the province provides more money for social housing, homeless advocates say a dangerous mix of a lack of housing with freezing temperatures could prove fatal.

“You don’t have a choice here,” says Audrey Schwartz, executive director of the Active Support Against Poverty (ASAP), a Prince George shelter and housing provider. “If you’re sleeping outside [during the winter], you’re dead.”

Schwartz says Prince George’s shelters are providing the necessary space to keep people inside (even though ASAP had to turn its “meeting room” into a 10-bed “overflow room”), but adds that the biggest problem is the lack of affordable housing.

“We can get them shelter, but then what?” she asks. “There’s no housing.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by the city’s homeless, who primarily congregate in the northeastern section of downtown Prince George, where it seems there are two drop-in centers on every block.

“They don’t let us have any homes,” says Rocky Prince, a 63-year-old native homeless man who was playing crib at The Fire Pit.

Prince has been homeless for 20 years and currently sleeps at the Ketso Yoh Centre Men’s Hostel. But he can’t afford to make the jump from shelter to housing.

“It’s too expensive for a single person,” he says in between card deals. “It’s $450 for a room and $600 for a one-bedroom. But I only get $400 a month. I don’t know why they charge so much.”

While Vancouver has a large (although often poorly run) stock of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels to absorb some of the city’s low-income population, Price George has only a handful of similar hotels.

“We don’t have the SROs like Vancouver,” says Marianne Sorensen, executive director of the Association Advocating for Women and Children (AWAC). “We have very few options. Most of the SROs are small and only house eight or nine tenants and aren’t built with strong concrete like in Vancouver. They tend to be poor structures.”

Last August, three men died when the Columbus Hotel burned down after a dryer caught fire. The hotel did not have a sprinkler system or a fire escape on the third floor.

While the BC Liberal government has spent money on shelters and rent supplements over the past two years, both Schwartz and Sorensen say the government needs to start investing in new supportive housing projects in Prince George.

Otherwise, the number of homeless in the north will only continue to grow.

Sean Condon is the editor of Megaphone Magazine.

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