More than 10,580 British Columbians are homeless this winter, according to a survey of estimates compiled by the New Democratic Party. And the ranks of the unsheltered are growing fastest not in the province's largest cities, but in B.C.'s booming exurbs such as Abbotsford and Whistler.
"We are sometimes fooled into thinking homelessness is a Vancouver issue," said MLA David Chudnovsky, the opposition critic who conducted the study. "But these numbers show that homelessness is a province-wide crisis."
Interviews with social workers and homeless individuals in the Fraser Valley confirm the NDP's findings.
"Smaller communities are starting to face this issue," said Deb Lowell, a spokeswoman for The Salvation Army in Abbotsford. "Homelessness now seems to be a problem right across the province, if not the country."
Ken Wiede is an Abbotsford native who lived without a home in his own hometown for two years.
"There's way more people living on the streets of Abbotsford today," Wiede said. "Way more. And it's rougher."
Shelter staff supplied estimates
B.C.'s largest cities top the list released Friday morning. The NDP found 2,300 people living without shelter in Vancouver, 1,550 in Victoria and 1,050 in Prince George.
But the second tier of homelessness is concentrated in fast-growing exurbs such as Abbotsford, which ranked fourth on the list.
The survey estimated there are 400 homeless people living in Abbotsford, and another 184 across the Upper Fraser Valley. Similarly, the survey found 200 homeless in the Tri Cities, 180 in Burnaby and 100 in Langley.
Taken together, the NDP estimates suggest that there are now more homeless Canadians scattered across the Lower Mainland than concentrated in Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside.
"I was particularly surprised by the large numbers of suburban homelessness," MLA Chudnovsky said. "These include some of the most affluent and fastest-growing parts of the province."
Chudnovsky said he initiated the survey after Housing Minister Rich Coleman failed to respond to his request for an official province-wide homeless count.
"If we're serious about ending homelessness, we need to know what the situation really is," Chudnovsky said. "Minister Coleman either did not know, or was not willing to share that information. So we gathered it ourselves."
Field counts were cited where available. For communities without such counts, Chudnovsky's team interviewed social workers with client lists -- people such as shelter operators and outreach staff -- and compiled the province-wide total from their local estimates.
'We don't have SROs in Abbotsford'
"In Abbotsford, we have what economists would call an ideal economy: High wages. Low unemployment. Affordable living," said Ron Van Wyc, program director for B.C.'s Mennonite Central Committee. "So for a long time, I think there was a public perception that we didn't have a homeless problem here."
That perception weakened after a 2004 field count found 226 homeless people, and cracked in 2006 after a group of local homeless people crowded into a high-profile encampment that became know as Compassion Park.
"As a community, I think we've moved through the phase of denial," Van Wyc said. "Now there is a recognition that something needs to be done."
Leading the charge across B.C.'s bible belt is The Salvation Army. In Abbotsford, the Army's Centre of Hope houses a 150-meal-a-day soup kitchen, a 20-bed shelter, a 14-bed transitional housing facility and a provincially-funded outreach program.
Outreach worker Randy Clayton said he could house more than half of the almost 300 people on Abbotsford's outreach rolls -- if only he could find enough affordable apartments.
"We don't have SROs in Abbotsford," Clayton said. "There are a few rooming houses that let bedrooms for $400 or $500 a month. One-bedroom basement suites start at $700." But with the province still paying only $375 a month for housing, "There's really no affordable housing to be had."
Most of Clayton's clients live in the woods. Some pitch full camps complete with kitchens and fire pits. Others nest in local parks. One former military man dug himself a burrow ten feet underground.
Others live in their cars. In a region with poor public transit, many of the working poor choose to give up their homes before sacrificing their wheels.
"I had a beat-up old Chevy van that I lived in for three years," said Wiede. He found places that tolerated parking overnight. "They never gave me permission," he said. "But they never kicked me out."
Clayton figures there are another 100 to 150 homeless individuals who remain off the Sally Ann's rolls, bringing the Abbotsford total in line with the NDP estimate.
"This is the time of year that we find out how many more are homeless," Clayton said. "When it gets cold like this, people literally come out of the woods looking to get warm."
'Too cold in 100 Mile'
There does not appear to be any single reason why homelessness has roughly doubled throughout the Lower Mainland in the past few years.
A bit more than half of Abbotsford's homeless are locals, according to the 2004 homeless count. Many of those were pushed into the streets by the same deinstitutionalization and addiction that have driven the homeless crisis across Canada.
"I think we are seeing the consequence of social policy decisions made 15 years ago," Van Wyc said, "when there was a decision made to not continue funding social housing."
The other half of Abbotsford's burgeoning homeless appears to come from elsewhere in B.C.
Clayton Fraser is a thickly bearded young man who said he'd slept on the streets of Vancouver, beneath the power lines of Surrey, and "in the ditch" as far north as 100 Mile House. He did not beat around the bush when asked why he prefers Abbotsford, where he's spent most of the past year sleeping in a park.
"Too many games on Hastings Street. Too cold in 100 Mile," Fraser said.
'Anywhere but Vancouver'
Wiede said that many of the "new crowd" who arrived within the past year are from Vancouver.
"It's like a wave," Wiede said. "It's getting tougher in Vancouver. And now some of those tough people are moving here."
Randy Clayton's phone rang during our interview. On the other end of the line was a woman from Aldergrove seeking information about shelters. The outreach worker pulled a photocopied list off the wall, and started reading her some place names and phone numbers.
She interrupted him to explain that she was willing to go, "anywhere but Vancouver."
Few facilities in small cities
B.C.'s suburbs and small towns are less prepared to cope with fast-growing homeless populations than are cities such as Vancouver and Victoria, which host a continuum of services ranging from detox clinics to long-term supportive housing.
"There are few facilities here. The infrastructure is not as well established as in a place like Vancouver," Van Wyc said.
Similarly, the City of Abbotsford does not own any land on which to build new facilities, and is therefore unable to take advantage of funding recently offered by the province.
A new hospital is under construction, and Abbotsford housing advocates are lobbying to convert the old building into new social housing. Van Wyc is also pondering whether some sort of a mobile home park might be pressed into service in the interim.
But while the causes and conditions of homelessness vary among urban and suburban areas, the solution appears to remain the same: provide stable homes.
Blindness of 'untrained eyes'
Wiede is among Abbotsford's success stories. Unable to work after a back injury, and unable to survive on a $600-a-month pension, Wiede slipped into homelessness at the age of 60. He "wandered around this area" for two years before landing a room at Centre of Hope's transitional housing.
"The Salvation Army really helped me out in a big way," Wiede said. "They took me in when there was no place I could go."
Wiede has since found a subsidized apartment across town, and has largely re-entered mainstream society. But his two years on the streets opened his eyes to a problem he said most of his new neighbours still can't see.
"I see things my friend doesn't see," Wiede said. "We'll be drivin' along and I'll say, 'Did you see those eight people in the field over there?' And he says, 'No.'
"And you see, that's just it. With untrained eyes, you don't see it. And if you don't see it, you think the problem doesn't exist."
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