The combination of cheaper, more-potent drugs and a lack of housing may have helped push the Abbotsford homeless population to unprecedented levels last summer, according to a “disturbing” report provided to the city last fall.
In just six months, the number of homeless people living in the bush and not accessing any services had risen from around 150 in the spring to 273 by the late summer, according to an informal count by a Salvation Army outreach worker. Other service providers reported similar spikes in the number of homeless people needing help.
The figures were included in a five-page document, obtained by The News through a Freedom of Information request, that summarized discussions with workers from seven organizations that help the homeless.
The report’s author – whose name is redacted – sent the document to Lynda Brummitt, the city’s research analyst for its homelessness plan, with the caveat that it contained “rough notes and is therefore not for distribution.”
In an email back to the author, Brummitt called the report “disturbing,” but added that it was “good to capture these trends.”
Among the most startling findings of the report was that service providers believed people were coming to Abbotsford specifically to obtain drugs blamed for the spike in overdose deaths over the last year.
Four different service providers told the author the “desirable price/quality/levels of fentanyl and W-18 … are drawing a younger homeless population from other centres.”
W-18 is a synthetic compound deadlier than even fentanyl, which has been blamed in part for a spike in opioid overdoses that killed 914 across B.C. and 37 in Abbotsford.
Service providers told the report’s author that there had been a “significant increase in the number of homeless” in the city, and that many of the newcomers seemed to be “more aggressive,” and more “entrenched” in street homelessness, with “more ties to tougher crime.”
The consequences have been felt, at least in part, by the local food bank, which told the report’s author that it had experienced a level of vandalism and theft that had not previously been experienced.
Abbotsford Police Const. Ian MacDonald confirmed to The News that W-18 and customized “analogs” had been detected in the city late last summer and likely continue to be used here.
However, no confirmed W-18 have been seized. Its presence has only been revealed in blood tests of overdose victims.
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An “extreme crisis in affordable rental stock,” the high cost of living, and the presence of the Riverside Road shelter were also reported by interviewees to be key factors in the increasing homeless population, according to the document.
Staff at Positive Living Fraser Valley reported increasing numbers of people had been evicted illegally by landlords conducting renovations. They also stressed that there is a lack of services for women and couples, a concern raised by others interviewed.
The report’s author also accompanied outreach workers on tours of homeless camps in the spring, and then again six months later. He found camp sizes had significantly increased.
The author reported that some camps “acquire a communal atmosphere, with shared living spaces such as kitchens and established camp rules.”
Not all homeless campers were addicted to drugs, and the author heard a range of opinions about harm reduction initiatives.
“More than once, residents complained about ‘harm reduction gone wild,’ with substance users being careless with supplies because of their assurance that there would always be more. One camp resident had been injured by a needle left in a stream while she was washing,” the author says.
The document continued: “Efforts were ongoing within camps to create a safer environment with better management of harm reduction supplies. It was interesting that several camp residents (substance users included) felt that the safety and (relative) comfort of their environment was undermined by the abuse of harm reduction supplies. Several people mentioned the need for a safe injection site in Abbotsford.”
For many of those wanting to get off the street, there has been simply nowhere to go.
According to the report and other emails obtained by The News, the Cyrus Centre for youth reported turning away more than 100 people between March and September, the Riverside Shelter has turned away around 15 people each month, and the Salvation Army reported an occupancy rate of 126 per cent as of November.
In a separate email from late November obtained by The News, the Fraser Health Authority told the city they had received complaints of “individuals, who identify as Abbotsford being their home community, having a challenge accessing shelter spaces in Abbotsford.”
Around the same time, a report by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation found that Abbotsford had the lowest rental availability rate in all of Canada.
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The document was created as part of ongoing research for the city as it continues to work on its Homeless Action Plan, which was begun in 2014.
In a written statement, the city said it continues to work with a variety of government and local stakeholders to support programs for the homeless.
It said it will be piloting a new “comprehensive Homelessness Response System” that will include more supportive housing and programs.
Included in that will be a new “co-ordinated intake and referral model,” which is meant to streamline the way homeless men and women access services in the city. The city will also be implementing a “rental connect” program to try to match those who are homeless with housing. An integrated case management team will also start work.
It’s expected that the Gladys Avenue supportive housing facility will open in the next coming months. That facility will provide 30 spaces for those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
And March will see a point-in-time survey that will attempt to count the number of homeless people in Abbotsford.
Meanwhile, the future of the 40-unit Riverside shelter remains unclear, with funding set to expire in the spring.