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Packed house at Maple Ridge council chambers to hear ideas for homeless

It was a full house Monday night in Maple Ridge City council chambers for a special meeting on the homelessness situation in the city. - Ashley Wadhwani/TIMES
It was a full house Monday night in Maple Ridge City council chambers for a special meeting on the homelessness situation in the city.
— image credit: Ashley Wadhwani/TIMES

by Eric Zimmer and Ashley Wadhwani

Council chambers were packed Monday night as community members came out to hear the proposed future of housing for Maple Ridge’s homeless.

The RainCity-run temporary homeless shelter running in downtown Maple Ridge is slated to close at the end of June, and residents packed the City hall for a special meeting Monday evening to learn what is being done to address homelessness moving forward.

They quickly learned that BC Housing is proposing to extend the life of the temporary homeless shelter by another nine month, while that “solution” is sought.

A lot of time was also spent discussing what the current situation – related to homelessness and housing – is in Maple Ridge and how BC Housing and a number of local agencies are proposing to deal with it.

No decision tonight

At the start of Monday evening’s gathering, Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read told the crowd that no decision would be made at the meeting, clarifying council was just gathering information.

Furthermore, she added, no location has been determined for a possible facility and “this will not be a focus of tonight’s meeting.”

As way of background, last week council passed a motion to have the City’s social policy advisory committee strike a task force of “community experts to assist in the development of a community consultation process that will engage the public in developing a long-term solution to address the needs of housing and homelessness,” Read said the release.

Minimal barriers are key

BC Housing executive director Dominic Flanagan was among the first to speak.

“We want our shelters to be a gateway to affordable housing,” Flanagan explained.

“The importance of minimal barrier is for shelter staff to engage with homeless and is a model that promotes recovery and rehabilitation.”

“[We’re] still in discussion with Salvation Army Ridge Meadows Ministries,” Flanagan noted.

As of April 1, the locally Sally Ann became a low-barrier shelter.

It was noted that in the past 12 months, additional resources that have been added include Alouette Home Start’s 50 rental supplements, RainCity Housing’s 40-bed temporary shelter, and Alouette Addictions’ 40 rental supplements.

Naomi Brunemeyer, BC Housing director of regional development, said 28 still needing housing in RainCity temporary shelter in Maple Ridge.

“Your community is not unique,” she said. “This has been happening in other cities.”

In a proposal presented by BC Housing, it’s suggested a modular-housing facility be constructed to bridge the current immediate needs while a community education and consultation process takes place to work towards a permanent solution for the long term.

Modular idea three years out

This modular housing project would be in place for approximately three years.

The interim-housing project would have a mix of housing types including transitional supportive housing.

In order to complete construction of the interim-modular housing facility the temporary shelter facility will remain open until the interim facility is available for occupancy.

Whether an agreement to construct an interim facility is approved or the temporary shelter is extended, BC Housing has committed to keeping in place three full-time outreach workers and 40 new rent supplements that were assigned to Alouette Addictions in 2015.

Brunemeyer noted that the “modular housing solution” is working in Abbotsford.

BC Housing would help the City find a site for modular-housing facility to fit 40 people, looking for a location with zoning in place or aid of the municipal to rezone, she noted.

“BC Housing would want to purchase an already serviced site to minimize costs,” she added, proposing that RainCity Housing lead the facility.

“BC Housing feels it would be best to help homeless with already familiar faces…” in the form of a shelter or supportive housing.

However, this “modular” format would not be completed by June 30, and BC Housing is willing to extend the operation of the temporary homeless shelter another nine months, and pay for it, she said.

Currently, “RainCity is turning people away as they prepare to shut down shelter,”

Councillor Bob Masse was not present for the BC Housing discussion, citing a conflict of interest as a commercial neighbour of the existing shelter.

Councillor Corissa Bell wanted to know “how moving forward would look different.”

It’s a very complex situation, Flanagan responded, and “RainCity is doing an excellent job so far.”

RainCity and BC Housing are still struggling to find appropriate housing for those at the shelter, because of lack of rental units, he added.

“Unique support for these individuals is needed.”

If a modular-unit proposal is not supported, Councillor Craig Speirs wanted to know “how BC Housing would support these people?”

He questioned the support in a scattered modular-unit model compared to congregate.

Housing options needed

“We want a range of housing options,” Flanagan said, noting the modular housing facilitates would be staffed 24/7.

Shelters are the “most expensive way” to deal with the homelessness, Flanagan said. “Shelters should be [a] mix of shelter spaces and individual units.”

“Do you (BC Housing) have any numbers to prove the shelter and this model are working?” Councillor Gordy Robson asked.

Flanagan replied he had none with him.

“Memorandum of understanding is not working at Alouette Heights, why would it work now?” Robson further queried.

As of last week, BC Housing meeting with staff at Alouette Heights to ensure the memorandum of understanding is followed, Flanagan insisted.

Noting that “28 people are homeless and sick (references crystal meth and heroine addictions of these people),” Robson had another question: ‘Why not make it a hospital ward?”

Minimal barrier “is part of recovery continuum,” responded Flanagan. “[It] allows for engagement.”

“Why not put the shelter next to the hospital?”Robson said.

Councillor Tyler Shymkiw wanted to know why an “urban or suburban area” need to be where the shelter is located.

Flanagan cited a few reasons, including the fact that homeless hang out in the urban areas, because of level of uptake, and due to proximity to services.

Flanagan responded.

“If it goes out of sight, homeless still hang out downtown, and it’s their communities as well...Why should they have to leave?” he said.

Shymkiw asked about tracking regional flow [where the homeless are coming from,” questioning the concept that “if you build it they will come.”

Flanagan exclaimed that “90 per cent” of the current temporary shelter occupants are from Maple Ridge.

Shymkiw noted that he was not confident in BC Housing’s “reactive process” to continue adding beds.

“I think it’s probably a budget reality,” he said. “”We haven’t seen numbers of what flow in and out is.”

Stressing that it’s their focus to get out of “reactive mode,” Flanagan replied: “I think what we are looking at is how we move people along housing continuum. Refocusing the shelter to act as a gateway to housing. The modular proposal gives this community breathing space to look at what the next steps are.”

He noted that the $15 million for a facility purchase was still on the table.

Shymkiw asked about the drug-use demographics.

Flanagan replied he couldn’t speak to this specifically.

Shymkiw then suggested BC Housing needs to keep in mind other cities, and not look at them individually.

Read then asked Flanagan about the number of rent subsidies.

Enhanced rent subsidies is a targeted approach using other groups, Flanagan responded.

“I think the issue is importance of both getting housing and staying housed, notes an interest in looking at private landlords,” he said. “Rent supplements are key but not the only strategy.”

Ninety people house “is good numbers,” said Read. “Can you speak to this?”

Alouette Addictions executive director Annika Polegato responded that 103 people have been housed, nine have lost housing, and three have moved, which means 91 are still housed.

Read then brought up the homeless tent city situation in Victoria, and said having beds does not enable cities to move people from tents to these facilities.

“Has anything changed around policies BC Housing has for shelters versus longer-term housing?” the mayor asked.

“We’ve seen our population rotate in and out of shelter. They’re not really successfully connecting to resources.”

Read also wanted to know how BC Housing would respond should the City end up with another homeless camp such as the one last year on Cliff Avenue.

“The shelter review process begins next week,” Flanagan said. “We see shelters are now serving ‘chronic shelter users’,” and that this brings with it a range of challenges.”

Key is engagement

When people get engaged, Flanagan said, “it helps them get to housing.”

He added that he wants this process to start “the moment someone walks into” the shelter.

“We are underfunded for our youth homeless and addicted,” said Read. “I don’t understand how we get in front of this as city/region if adequate funding is not going to kids.”

If the problem is to be addressed, then other groups need to join, and community and provincial integration is needed,” Flanagan said.

Councillor Bell asked about Ridge Meadows RCMP referencing continual crime issues.

“The pillar is around community safety,” Flanagan said.

“That has to be addressed as any initiative. Groups like RainCity work close with RCMP, and this relationships needs to be maintained.”

He clarified that a “low-barrier shelter” doesn’t mean that “anything goes, but rather targets the most vulnerable and makes it accessible by minimizing barriers. It gets them connected and is part of rehabilitation.”

RainCity Housing’s Sean Spear was the next to speak.

He started with a history of RainCity, continued by talking about who is at the shelter, and noted among other things, “that we really get to know homeless people here and their connections to Maple Ridge.”

He admitted the amounts of mental illness and addictions are high, and Spear said that “be it not for this shelter, several would not have seen intervention during overdoses.”

“There is a lack of housing support without support there are challenges, and RainCity has helped in the gateway to housing,” Spear claimed.

Councillor Robson asked if Sally Ann and RainCity are “somewhat” working together.

‘We work closely with Sally Ann with casework meetings, etc.” Spear responded.

“Seems to me BC Housing has become landlord for the sick,” Robson said. “Do you see a parallel to hospital staff?”

Spear noted clinical bed staff have intervened with health issues in the shelter.

Who owns RainCity? Councillor Bell wanted to know.

Spear responded that RainCity is a non-profit, shelter operator, whose primary funding comes from BC Housing.

Bell asked about feedback to the shelter Spear may have heard from nearby businesses.

“They’re our neighbours and we’ve had multiple meetings,” Spear said.

“Are businesses feeling safe? Losing business?” Bell asked.

“Some say a lot of this existed before this anyways, this is better than the encampment… once-in-a-while there being issues,” Spear responded. “It’s been a challenge to run the shelter for sure. We can look forever and find not one place that everyone agrees with, especially residents.”

However, there has “definitely not” been complaining about the everyday situation from neighbours, Spear insisted, as he brought up the idea of adding storage space for shelter residents and their goods.

Bell was not keen on this idea.

“How do we justify storing stolen goods?” she asked.

“We work with enforcement of stolen goods, daily,” Spear responded, and noted that “we do have cameras.”

Bell said she’s witnessed a drug deal right out front shelter. She asked about cameras or any other preventative measures.

“We work closely with RCMP about that,” Spear said. “We do all that we can to work with a 40-bed shelter with those addicted to drugs.”

Speirs had questions surrounding the shelter’s timeline.

“What’s your sense of shutting the shelter down at the end of June?” he asked.  “What does it look like for 28 still needing to be housed?”

Those remaining 28 “have anxiety, and are looking at camping,” Spear said.

“To just abandon this process at this point would cause an intolerable situation in the community,” Speirs said.

Councillor Kiersten Duncan said she commends Spear and RainCity staff for intervening on 56 people overdosing.

She also brought up the subject of stolen goods. “It’s an unfair stigma that all homeless people are criminals,” Duncan said.

A possible next step

Spear then proposed some next steps for RainCity and Maple Ridge.

These included:

• Address the clear need for housing

• Continue to provide support for the remaining 26

• Participate in the transition of support and services

• Continue to find long-term housing once the next option is finalized

• Address the impact of trauma with Fraser Health

 

Duncan asked what “the impact of trauma with Fraser Health” meant.

“A homeless person’s trauma can include what got them to being homeless or addicted, and if anything has happened while homeless,” answered Spear.

“People are driving by throwing garbage at people at the shelter.”

There’s also physical attacks, he said. “That’s traumatic on top of being homeless.”

Read asked if BC Housing or RainCity tracks those in treatment and what happens next for them.

Spear said they do, in conjunction with Fraser Health.

Polegato spoke next, on behalf of Alouette Addictions.

“We have hired an elementary school outreach worker to roll out drug and alcohol prevention starting in elementary school,” she noted, crediting School District 42 for being the only district to partner on such an education intiative.

Fraser Health medical health officer Dr. Helena Swinkels spoke on the subject of harm reduction.

“Harm reduction services and housing support helps minimize harm by connecting people with health services,” she said. “The end goal is sobriety and integration back into society.”

However, forcing addicted into treatment does not work, Swinkels said.

She also brought up the health factor.

“When people don’t have housing options and camp, infections can increase,” she said. “We really do focus on keeping people alive and well until they are ready to seek treatment.”

Fraser Health’s executive director Andy Libbiter took a turn at the podium.

“We have to build intervention for people who are highly individualized,” he said. “Coordinating services is critical for homeless and harm reduction, and getting rid of barriers for care.”

Police weigh in

Ridge Meadows RCMP Supt. Dave Fleugel spoke at the meeting, as well.

“Whatever future our community has, we will police it,” he said.

Fleugel also noted that since the shelter opened, police have responded to calls there 156 times.

‘We work closely with RainCity shelter,” he said, noting that between Cliff Avenue’s tent city and now, there’s “not much difference.”

“Property crime is back to levels seen traditionally, it dips due to weather,” Maple Ridge’s top cop told the crowd.

To be effective in driving crime down, police need to target prolific offenders, he said, calling this an “absolute priority.”

When the tent city on Cliff Avenue happened, “we needed a proactive team,” he said. “We cultivated resources and created a downtown team headed by Cpl. Brenda Winpenny, and are on the ground.”

But it remains that “drug trafficking is challenging for police to get a grip on.”

Summertime does bring extra policing pressure, he insisted.

“It would be great if we didn’t have a camp.”

However, police “do have a plan and are confident,” Fleugel said.

“People will of course, want a police officer on every corner but that’s not realistic… So we are doing the best we can and there are hours that are a little thin with police on call.”

Shymkiw said community members are concerned about “the needle issue” in Maple Ridge.

No one wants to find needles,” said Swinkels. “I know there is renewed intent to get together with City staff to develop a needle recovery committee.”

One of the most important things, Swinkels added, is enabling those who use injection tools to be able to dispose of them properly, a.k.a. injection site.”

The “major risk to the community is actually from transmission of HIV and Hep C from reuse of needles,” she added.

“It will never be acceptable to this community to find used needles,” Shymkiw said.

“Does Fraser Health have any opinion of where to a potential shelter location should be? Or if council says ‘no’, would they go anywhere?” Bell asked.

BC Housing’s modular-unit facility “is most effective to helping people with their needs, otherwise, they’re scattered or out of city central housing dilutes resources,” answered Libbiter.

“If relocation of the shelter is not downtown, will Fraser Health travel there?” Bell asked.

“We will, but will people actually go given that we can’t coerce them?” Libbiter replied.

Mayor growing frustrated

Read expressed her frustration at the situation.

“I feel like we’re fighting a fire with a hose when it comes to Maple Ridge homelessness,” she said. “I have significant concerns around the demand, demand is going to continue to increase.... we have a bunch of kids in our schools that can’t communicate they have anxiety or depression etc, and we don’t have the ability to recognize this as parents.”

As a result, she said, “I feel angry on an ongoing basis and desperate... this integration is not working.”

Read asked Fraser Health about tracking in reduction of homeless visiting hospital, saying there has been some reduction.

Libbiter added there has been a general reduction for homeless visiting emergency, “but that this decrease is not huge.”

What support will wrap around the modular unit? Read wanted to know.

Libbiter said several, and referred to a couple of the slides on screen.

“Is this not what is happening in RainCity temp shelter now?” Read asked.

Libbiter said yes, but that mental health centre services “1,000 people alone every year.”

Read also questioned Supt. Fleugel as to how crime stats in Maple Ridge compared to the rest of the region.

“Per capita, we actually look quite favourably and are ‘holding our own,’ compared to Mission, Langley, and Chilliwack,” he responded.

MORE TO COME....

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