The man heading up a provincially-funded homelessness project in Hope said it’s hugely important to hear and acknowledge concerns expressed by residents and businesses.
Ron Van Wyk, project coordinator for the Strengthening Communities’ Services Initiative, said one of the goals of the multi-month venture, which was announced Jan. 14, will be to reduce community concerns about public safety in neighbourhoods where homeless people seek shelter.
He hopes educating people about the reasons for homelessness will instill more sensitivity to their plight, but he also knows there are legitimate concerns about crime that can’t be swept under the rug.
“One has to recognize that those are legitimate concerns and we need to genuinely be hearing them,” Van Wyk said. “What is the impact of people sleeping people in business entrances? There are issues for a business operation as to how people present themselves when they go into businesses, and we need to be open to hear those concerns.
“But we also need dialogue to ask ourselves, what do we do about it? Do we just shoo people away? We know this is a reality across Canada and so, is there an answer to be found in bylaw enforcement that’s connecting people with services instead of just being punitive? Is there more to be done about drugs coming into the community? We know a big part of homelessness is mental health, and what can do to help with that?”
Van Wyk has worked on many homelessness projects in the eastern Fraser Valley, mostly in Abbotsford but also in Chilliwack, and he looks forward to having those conversations.
The Strengthening Communities’ Services Initiative is a joint-undertaking of the District of Hope, Fraser Health, the United Way and the Hope and Area Transition Society (HATS). Van Wyk said there will be consultation with local groups like the Hope Active Response Table (HART), the Community Advisory Committee (CAC), Chamber of Commerce, senior and youth groups and local First Nations.
“And we also need to find ways to bring residents into the discussions,” he said.
Another of the stated goals is to “improve the health and safety of unsheltered homeless people,” and to that end HATS already has ‘boots on the ground’ in the form of two-person evening outreach teams.
The other two goals of the project are to improve service coordination between homeless individuals and the people trying to help them, and help those people to better provide culturally-safe and trauma-informed services.
“Sometimes we have good intentions, but if we come from a place of not having all the information and not being properly trained, we might unintentionally cause some harm in the community,” Van Wyk said. “We want to make sure that people are well-informed and their approach is trauma-informed, and they understand cultural sensitivities too because we know that within the unsheltered population in the Fraser Valley, a significant proportion are from First Nations heritage.”
When the project wraps up in around eight months time, Van Wyk will be drafting a report.
Documents like this often include valuable recommendations. Documents like this often end up gathering dust on a shelf with no follow through.
Van Wyk is hopeful that won’t be the case. He said the Fraser Valley region has made great progress over the last decade on things like supportive housing and outreach, and he sees that as proof that people are committed to the cause.
“There’s always the possibility that reports end up on shelves and nothing happens,” he said. “It’s important to keep reminding people about that report and always be referencing the findings and recommendations. It is a challenge, but it behooves community leaders and those who want to improve the community to keep pushing and prompting decision makers with it.”