Community forum addresses homelessness

Hope & Area Transition Society focuses on Housing First approach

Hope & Area Transition Society (HATS) is seeking public input on housing strategies for the homeless.

The organization hosted a community forum last Thursday to present information regarding the Housing First approach and provide an opportunity to address questions and concerns from residents. HATS is also in the process of creating a community advisory committee.

“We want the community to be part of the solution,” said executive director Gerry Dyble.

The Thunderbird Motel Project was launched in 2008 through a B.C. Housing contract with HATS to support individuals facing challenges securing and maintaining housing.

“It comes with its challenges and we see that,” said Dyble. “However, this population group was already living out at the Thunderbird and the owner was renting to the group on a month-to-month basis. The owner approached us to work with the clients and provide supports. Our concern is that we need to have it serviced more.”

In 2011, BC Housing urged HATS to look at the option of purchasing the motel. The board hired Terra Housing Consultants to prepare a feasibility study and business plan, which were presented to the board and BC Housing. During that time a building condition report and commercial appraisal were also conducted. The board met with the motel owner in 2012 to discuss purchasing the property, but were unable to negotiate a sale.

In early 2014, BC Housing urged the board again to either start re-negotiations with the owner of the Thunderbird or consider looking at other options for ownership of a housing project. The board decided to look at other options and HATS secured a grant through the Homeless Partnering Strategy to do research on community readiness for a Housing First model. Jennifer Hawkins was hired in October 2014 to conduct the research, which included several community consultations.

“If we can’t purchase the Thunderbird and we want to make sure we can deliver the best service possible for this population and have some control over it, we need our own piece of property and our own building to do that,” said Dyble.

The Thunderbird currently houses 30 people in 24 units. Admittance to the program is based on the applicant’s motivation towards working on identified personal barriers. They often suffer from multiple barriers, including addiction, mental illness, and limited social and life skills. Residents receive one meal a day and are required to maintain their unit, attend resident committee meetings, and participate in goal planning.

The Thunderbird strives to increase residents’ sense of self-worth and esteem, promote healthy living and lifestyle choices, engage residents in building life and social skills, and identify employability potential, strengths and limitations. Dyble said clients learn socially appropriate behaviours in a semi-independent supportive environment, skills that can’t be learned on the street. She also pointed out that punishment doesn’t work for those experiencing multiple challenges.

Hawkins noted that there’s many factors contributing to Hope’s homelessness, including its location and transient population, high number of people at-risk of homelessness, and low vacancy rates.

The Housing First approach is client-centered and case-managed, and there’s an emphasis on recovery and community integration. There’s also no pre-readiness conditions.

“Homelessness is on the rise in rural communities,” said Hawkins. “Having a roof over one’s head and having three meals a day is the best place to facilitate wellness. When you’re on the streets, it’s survival. When you have housing, it’s a better platform to facilitate recovery. It’s not just handing someone a key. It’s housing plus supports. You can’t have low-barrier housing without the supports.”

Several people in attendance at last Thursday’s meeting raised concerns about the Thunderbird program, including personal safety, decreased property values, and the need for more support on site. Staff Sgt. Bruce Anderson said the local detachment has stepped up patrols in the area and urges residents to report any trespassers or suspicious activity. Mayor Wilfried Vicktor also pointed out that residents can work together to lobby their MLA for additional supports for mental health and addiction services.

“I know we’re not particularly novel in Hope. Every community in British Columbia has this problem,” said Vicktor. “Based on my 35 years in Hope, I certainly would say with some level of insight, that the homeless problem is way better than it has been in years. One thing we all have to consider is we’re all one decision, one unfortunate circumstance, or one mental health issue away from being homeless.”

The information forum followed the launch of an online petition by concerned residents, calling on the Hope & Area Transition Society to stop the addition of any more “low-barrier beds or shelters for the homeless in our community.” The petition preamble states “our town has been riddled with problems with low-barrier housing. It enables people with drug addiction and mental illness to go on living the way they do with no consequences. Low-barrier housing is only a bandaid solution to a bigger problem.”

So far, the petition at gopetition.com has garnered 133 signatures.