Feature Story                                                                                                      Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014



Different Type of Need

An overwhelmed Chilliwack community struggles to respond to mental health issues

Staff/Voice photos


Steven Esau speaks about the Contact Centre at the Chilliwack Healthier Communities forum last week. Below, Kim Bohach talks about Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Fraser Valley.


here's a crisis in Chilliwack. It's not homelessness, or has anything to do with food. It's a mental health crisis and the community needs the tools to deal with it.

Often, people living with mental illness have very little interaction with the outside world. Much of the time they live alone and the only contact they have is with people like building managers and caretakers. Sometimes, no one seems to notice as they spiral down through the cracks of their mental illness.


The biggest question people have when interacting with someone who is battling mental illness is; 'Who do I call? The person isn’t breaking the law. They're not endangering themselves or others. What resources are in place that I can tap into when someone forgets to take their medication?'


In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), every building manager has tools they frequently utilize. For example, if a tenant is having trouble, they can call the Strathcona Mental Health Team consisting of two assistants and a doctor who come in and assess the person on the spot, and either take them or leave them.


Managers can call in a Public Health Nurse (PHN) who will check on a person's medical condition, and learn if they’re taking their medication. The PHN can even take the person out for a haircut or to find clothing if needed.


If a person can’t look after their finances in the DTES, then they're referred to the St. James Society where they’re given $5 cash, or whatever their daily budget is, and off they go. There's also an abundance of Neighbourhood Houses and community centers with staff trained to recognize when people are having mental health problems.


Chilliwack residents have just one tool—the police.


Where do these people with mental illness go when they find themselves on the street after causing trouble at the local shelters?


The police will shrug their shoulders and say that jail is no place for people with mental illness. If the police are called, all they can do is check to see if the person has any bail conditions. If they’re in breech, Mounties arrest the person and take them to either the psychiatric wing at Chilliwack General, or to jail. Soon after, the person is back out and the scene repeats itself.


Is calling an overworked police department the best thing to do every time someone sees a person karate kicking the air at imaginary foes?


Last week, some of the brightest minds and social policy makers in Chilliwack gathered at the Cultural Centre’s Odlum Brown Studio to hear three speakers; Collete Bohach, Mentoring Coordinator, Big Brothers Big Sisters; Steve Esau, Manager of the Chilliwack Health and Housing Centre and Kim Lloyd, Program Coordinator, HIV HCV Prevention and Education Program, Pacific Community Resources Society.


The meeting was hosted by the Chilliwack Healthier Community Program.


Bohach explained in her presentation that this year was the 100th Anniversary of Big Brothers and Big Sisters in Canada and that they'd been operating in the Fraser Valley about 50 years.


She outlined some of the areas they work in such as; behaviour and relationship and mental health, sports, art, music and other activities.


Currently, there is a 3-year wait for boys to be matched with a mentor, and a 1-year wait for girls.



Bohach understands that meeting the needs of the kids is a magnanimous task.


Studies show that mentoring helps kids stay in school. It helps them avoid risky behaviours such as bullying. They grow up to have respect for family, peers and community and helping children reach their full potential leads to positive community outcomes; reduction in poverty and unemployment, safer schools and neighbourhoods and a new generation of fitness-minded adults.


For those interested in becoming a mentor, the agency asks that person make at least a 1-year commitment to take part mentoring for things such as literacy development or after school programs. Teen mentoring is also one of the options.


They also plan regular and non traditional sporting activities, with their "Game On" program. Some girls are in the "Go Girls" program with healthy body and mind focus. There are info-mentoring programs for teens and adults.


Bohach says that families often contact the group through their own accord and do a staff referral.


"One thing I think is unique with Big Brothers and Big Sisters, is that families get to access the programs all on their own without any barriers to getting involved," she said.


"The foundation of what we do is based on friendship. So, we're not there to do intervention or relief care work or anything like that. Sometimes those things arise but the foundation is really friendship and having fun together," says Bohach. "We only choose children who choose to engage in our program.


Bohach explains that there is a common misconception in the community that Big Brothers and Big Sisters are for single parent families only.


"There is a belief out there, and it was my belief when I got involved with the organization, that we serve single parent families and that's not really the case today. Today, we are way more diverse and as diverse as the population is in this community as diverse as the children that we serve," she said.


The second to speak was Steve Esau, Manager of the Chilliwack Health and Housing Centre.


Esau talked about how the Centre got started and the long road to the point where they were ready to open in the renovated Days Inn Motel at 45921 Hocking Ave.


"Because what they saw in Chilliwack was that these people unfortunately have to deal with strong addiction, there's some mental illness, there's homelessness. These are problems that happen around the globe, so how can we respond to it in Chilliwack?" asked Esau.


A couple of months after opening, they formed a gardening committee that Esau says is holistically inspiring to chronically homeless residents and gardening is therapeutic.


"Even touching dirt with your hand does amazing things to your serotonin levels," said Esau. "For depression its one of the greatest things you can do."


Esau’s job is to turn the clients into active and productive members of the community. But what if they don't cooperate or cause problems?


"It’s a good thing we have wonderful staff and a lot of community support which is wonderful," said Esau who adds they have the option of evicting residents who fail to participate, or relapse into drugs, “But that's not solving the homeless problem.”


"We totally just could kick people out whenever they use or do something wrong, but if our main focus is to try to stop the homeless situation in Chilliwack, I'm just contributing to the problem every time I kick someone out. We're not a "using" site. We do request 30 days clean prior to coming in to stay in that facility."


The Centre holds orientations at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and 7 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month.


Kim Lloyd, PCRS, talks about how she and her assistants distribute over 100,000 syringes each year in Chilliwack.


The third speaker was Kim Lloyd Program Coordinator, HIV HCV Prevention and Education Program, Pacific Community Resources Society (PCRS).


Lloyd lauded the meeting and emphasized the importance of collaborating between agencies.


"Without networking such as this, service providers don't know who they can go to. So how can we tell clients where they can go to?”


Lloyd says that in the community in general, there's a lot of stigma out there and all this misunderstanding and misinterpretation of what harm reduction actually is.


Lloyd spoke about harm reduction, asking those at the forum their thoughts on the subject.


"Do we automatically think of clean syringes, those types of things?"


"Harm reduction is in everything that we do," she said. "It’s in every stage, every aspect of our lives. Harm reduction is becoming more accepted because there's more of a need out there. Very often when we try to work with folk that are very street-entrenched, we're dealing with so many different factors when dealing with individuals.


Lloyd says staff first builds trust with their clients.


"Our programs are not just about the clean syringes, they're about connecting these folks with other service agencies who can work in collaboration with harm reduction programs.


PCRS operates the Needle Exchange. They distribute over 100,000 needles a year in Chilliwack. The van parks in the lot where the Empress Hotel was.


"I'll tell you right now, in Chilliwack we have got a problem," explains Llloyd. "I've got over 450 registered folks that I deal with and that is just downtown Chilliwack. Of the sex trade workers, I have registered 62. Not all of them are at it at that point, but that's a lot."


Lloyd describes what they call a Co-op system of needle distribution.


"What a co-op is, is someone who is in active drug addiction but who is responsible enough to collect and distribute harm reduction supplies to users that I cannot reach. So we try to spread the harm reduction reach further out. They also return the used syringes. But that individual might be responsible for 17 other people."


Lloyd says it’s the type of job that not a lot of people would do and the payback is success with clients.


"For any person that does outreach, you've got to have the successes to keep going. When you talk about success, moving someone from the street to housing is a success and absolutely gives that person an opportunity," said Lloyd. "This is the story of hope, one of just how strong human spirit truly is, and one of why we continue to do the work we do."


Related Links

Learn about Fraser Health's mental health programs here.

Chilliwack Healthier Community - City of Chilliwack here.

Alcohol-Drug Education Service www.ades.bc.ca

Pacific Community Resources Society www.pcrs.ca

Big Brothers and Big Sisters Fraser Valley www.mentoringworks.ca


The Chilliwack Health and Housing Contact Centre located on Hocking at Young Road.


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