Thursday November 24, 2010

Feature Story

Gimme Shelter

There are actually more foodless than homeless in Chilliwack

Craig Hill/Voice 

        

Ted Stoker walks in front of the tiny Atco-style trailer at Ruth and Naomi's shelter where up to 15 homeless are crammed like sardines.

 

hen temperatures on the coast started to plummet earlier this week, the provincial government said in a series of releases that they were going to open 165 additional Extreme Weather beds, doubling the existing Emergency Shelter Program since it began in 2001 and increasing funding six-fold to almost $60 million.

 

Also in that release, Coleman said "Our goal is to help make sure that anyone that wants to come inside for the night has a warm, safe place to go."

According to a report Monday, Progress writer Robert Freeman said Chilliwack was not on the list of communities to get money because the Salvation Army here didn't see a need, therefore hadn't enlisted into the government's Cold Weather Program.

During an interview Friday prior to Freeman's story, in an effort to find out why Chilliwack wasn't on the government's list, the Voice contacted Ian Pratt, who is the Community Ministries Director at the Chilliwack Salvation Army, and at that time said he couldn't speculate on the reason.

Pratt also said on Friday, that they had about 3 or 4 people overnight which is far from their peak capacity at 14 beds.

Reached at Ruth and Naomi's on Thursday, Street Ministries Director, Ted Stoker, told the Voice they had 8 stay Thursday night with room for 7 more and that if they were running at peak capacity there wouldn't be any additional room at the inn in the form of extreme weather beds.

"We haven't had that yet, but if that happens there's not much I can do. You can't lay them on top of each other either," said Stoker.

It's different at Ruth and Naomi's. A pile of bricks sits where their old building used to be and an Atco trailer is situated along the property line behind a wire mesh fence.

A new 8,000 sq. ft. multi-level structure is being built at the Fletcher Ave. location but won't be ready to occupy until late spring or early summer and until then Stoker said that they will be squeezed like sardines in a can.

Ruth and Naomi's isn't funded by government. It's a community-driven effort entirely and run by volunteers, church groups and businesses who donate the food, cook it and serve it every night for up to 150 people who go there. Again, without government funds.

Stoker said that they don't want to start relying on government handouts because the funding may get cut-off later and then they'll really be stymied.

"Government funding is not something I'm interested in because when you see they have the big cut-backs, it hurts everybody."

Citizens, business and churches already take up the slack from lack of funding. Some local churches will open their doors in an emergency situation. But that wouldn't be until people are lining up down the block to get a bed at one of the two shelters.

The fact is, a total of 12, or one-sixteenth of the city's homeless uses emergency shelters even despite bone-numbing temperatures. A warm mat is prime real estate to someone on the streets in -20c weather, or so it would seem. There aren't 180 people lined up down the street to get a warm mat in the Salvation Army's shelter.

So where are these 200 homeless people?  Maybe they're squatting in vacant buildings or sleeping in heated ATM bank lobbies. But they're vulnerable there to attacks. Plus, it's just a little unnerving to walk in and withdraw money while there are a bunch of guys sleeping there. 

"We have fulltime outreach workers that are out there and they check all over, they know all the places to check," said Pratt.

According to Stoker, the people have a "hole somewhere" but there are some who just reject the shelter part and just go there to eat.

"I know where some of them hide-out and they don't want to come in and we've had others who'll come in for the dinner, have a hot cup of coffee or chocolate or whatever, but they don't want to stay in overnight." said Stoker. "There's a certain core of them out there that They have a hole thing and they don't want to come out and there's others that couch-surf."

But for some reason the homeless are invisible in this city. Not so in Victoria, where the City and campers have been participating in a very visible battle along Pandora Blvd., with each side testing the other by erecting the removing cardboard shanties. These activists aren't hiding in the shadows like the majority of Chilliwack's homeless are, they're shining a big spotlighting the issue.

According to a press release yesterday, one man who had his home packed away is bringing a lawsuit against the City of Victoria and lengthy list of businesses. In that case he wants his shanty back and is suing for the cardboard and plus just over $1-million.

In the states they do things differently, and it works, most of the time. Why can't Canadians respond like the Americans to situations like that? Stateside there are more lobbyists, more pressure to bear on politicians because there are ten-times as many homeless just a half hour drive from Chilliwack.

The Seattle Post reported recently that the City acknowledges the issue of homelessness and is currently strategizing a long-term solution by designating land for the creation of a tent city. It's not much, but it works and would be a step in the right direction for Victoria to take too.

 Pratt says at the Salvation Army in Chilliwack, once they get the person into the system they can then offer a wide range of services to help individuals.

"If there's room in the shelter, they can move in on a semi-permanent basis, whatever the need may be. We do case planning with them, contact other agencies and try to find them other places to live ."

"We also offer a youth under 19-years-old a safe house downstairs and if there is any youth on the street they are welcome to partake in the beds that are available," he said.

Because Ruth and Naomi's doesn't get government funding, the huge effort to feed the amazing numbers of people that they do is generated solely through the help of the community.

It was tough at the beginning. "When we started, we were doing it every night and now my wife only has to cook one night a week, the rest are all covered by others," said Stoker.

Now, they have what they call an Adopt-A-Night program that has different groups come in that supply the food, cook it and serve it.

"Every night I have a different group in. I have Chilliwack Senior Secondary grade 11 and 12 students that do one night a month and I have Timothy Christian School grade 12 students do it once a month, REMAX Realty comes in once a month."

"A lot of them are from different churches, small groups that have just gotten together and say 'Hey, we can do that', but I have different companies as well that are involved.

When they get into the new building, Ruth and Naomi's can expand on what they call the Step-Up Program. "It's about stepping up from where you are to a better life," said Stoker.

"A lot of times when they go through treatment and recovery, where do they land up? Right back where they started. So we plan to take it beyond that and hopefully get them into fulltime employment."

Unlike the Salvation Army who need volunteers, Stoker says they don't need any and have plenty now because they're just in the tiny tin trailer, but his focus is the new building next year.

"Once we get our new building up we'll be looking for more people because we plan to go 24/7 then so we'll need more staff but right now we've got just about 300 volunteers on board already and that's lots for being in a little container."

"Upstairs is basically going to be all programs, and so when the guests come out of treatment or recovery that we take them from there and carry on with them."

At the time of this writing the Voice inquired about how well Ruth and Naomi's Gala fundraiser went but Wayne Massey, who is Chairman of the Board, did not return our calls.

Ruth and Naomi's is located at 9302B Fletcher Street and the office is at 46305 1st Ave. 604-795-2322

The Salvation Army shelter is located behind the Care and Share at 45746 Yale Rd.

For more information on extreme weather beds visit the provincial government's website at: www.bchousing.org/programs/ESP/shelter_list and see also; www.bchousing.org/programs/ESP/EWR

 

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