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Northern Exposure: Burns Lake homeless struggle to be heard

Last September, a comprehensive report about homelessness in Burns Lake was presented to the village council. Prepared by the Lake District Community Services, the Burns Lake Homelessness and Housing Study laid out some sobering statistics.

The village of 3,000, smack in the centre of British Columbia, has six homeless persons on the street and at least another 100 who couch surf in town or on the reserves. However, Burns Lake has just one shelter, which provides space for six battered women, and one group home, with only six beds. Men have no access to emergency shelter beds.

For a few dozen partly subsidized housing units, where rents or food cost a portion of the person’s income, waiting lists are long. Burns Lake has no fully subsidized social housing.

With little funding to provide support, the lack of an organized effort between various bands, social services and the government has resulted “in service gaps to our at-risk community members,” the report stated.

Despite the report’s stark statistics, Jeff Renaud, the Lake District Community Services’ acting-executive director, says nothing has been done since its release. Unlike many northern B.C. towns, which ignore or unaware of their homelessness crisis, Renaud says, Burns Lake has come to accept its poverty.

“There is a sense of apathy in the community,” he says. “A lot of the issues [around poverty and homelessness] are deep rooted and people tend to take them for granted.”

While poverty has become commonplace in the village, it has been institutionalized on the nearby reserves. With aboriginals making up roughly 90 per cent of the village’s homeless, homelessness can be passed down from one generation to the next.

Fleeing an abusive stepmother, Mildred Joseph left the Woyenne reserve when she was 16. For seven years she lived in the bush in Prince George. Now 46 years old, she is back in Woyenne, but two of her six sons are homeless. It is a tragedy that has become normalized in the First Nations communities.

“A lot of people on the reserve have been homeless so long that they just die [at a young age],” says the soft-spoken Joseph.

Although drug and alcohol abuse is rampant amongst the homeless in Burns Lake, the town has just one detox bed. Very little drug and alcohol treatment is available.

“Most places want you to be sober before they’ll help you,” says Joseph. “It’s like a slap in the face.”

With no housing and support services, Renaud says, local businesses, councillors and band leaders have to start working together to break the cycle. While the community is well aware of its homeless, he says, there is little cooperation.

“There’s a lot of conflicting interests,” Renaud says. “But these different groups have to come together with an economic plan and work for the greater good of the community.”

Sean Condon is the editor of Megaphone Magazine. He is filing a series of stories for The Tyee about homelessness in northern British Columbia.

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