Homeless referral program launched after years of work

‘We’ve heard loud and clear that we need action on the ground.’

After two years of work, the city has finally launched a new referral program it hopes will be the first step in solving the area’s homelessness crisis.

Now the question becomes how effective that program can be in getting people off the streets in one of the tightest housing markets in Canada.

In 2015, the city received a $400,000 federal grant to develop what it called a co-ordinated intake and referral (CIR) model. The model essentially tries to unify a variety of service organizations’ intake processes to make it easier to connect homeless men, women and teams with the help and housing they need.

Developing the model took two years, and it finally began rolling out in recent weeks. It has been accompanied by a new outreach medical team funded by Fraser Health.

That new “inter-agency housing allocation and care team” includes a nurse practitioner, a licensed practical nurse and a mental health/substance use clinician. An intake co-ordinator from the city and funded by Service Canada will assist, as will a housing liaison worker.

The team has spots for 30 clients at any one time – currently there are eight participants – and BC Housing has promised rental supplements and help to assist those in the program to retain housing.

The team hopes to reach men and women with persistent mental health and addiction issues, the city’s housing and homelessness co-ordinator Dena Kae Beno told council Monday; the CIR model is starting with referring people to the new team.

Beno said the last two years have been focused on building “fundamentals” and now more concrete actions will begin to be seen.

“We’ve heard loud and clear that we need action on the ground.”

Help will also come from partner agencies including the Salvation Army, Lookout Society, Positive Living of the Fraser Valley, SARA, Support for Women and Raven’s Moon.

Beno said the goal is for support agencies to move from devoting most of their energy to emergency help for those living on the street to a more systematic approach to preventing and homelessness and supporting those looking to move forward with their lives.

While the BC Housing rental supplements could help, Coun. Ross Siemens says data collected through the new CIR model will also help the city lobby for more resources to address the homelessness situation. The number of homeless people in the city has risen substantially over the last three years, and Abbotsford has one of the lowest rental vacancy rates in the country.

But housing and homelessness fall under federal and provincial jurisdictions, leaving the city angling for those governments to provide funds.

“The challenge we have is relationships with senior levels of government,” Siemens said, “because the city can’t solve this; we can manage it.”

The city is also hoping to receive an influx of funding in 2019, when the federal government renews contracts for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, a program the city is currently excluded from. The federal government has previously indicated that Abbotsford is likely to be included in the next round of contracts, which should put it in line for a share of $2.1 billion. That money is on top of the $11.2 billion promised over 11 years as part of a new national housing strategy.

Abbotsford has also begun a housing affordability study as part of its Plan 200K project. That study could form a basis for lobbying efforts to senior levels of government.