A group of homeless advocates is hoping to get the City of Abbotsford on board with an outreach program that would see those with lived experience of homelessness act as ambassadors to local businesses.
City spokesperson Alex Mitchell said the city is “engaged in preliminary conversations with community service providers and Fraser Health, looking at ways to develop a community ambassador program that would bring together people with lived experience to volunteer in the community to support our homeless in Abbotsford outreach activities.”
The proposed program, titled Business Engagement Ambassador Project (BEAP), would include members of Drug War Survivors (DWS) like Grace Unruh. One of the proposed ambassadors, Unruh said the intention is to take the initiative in building up a relationship with local businesses by helping to clean up and create a buffer between businesses and homeless people.
“If a store owner has an issue with maybe an aggressive individual, rather than call 911 and they serve time, call us. Maybe we can intervene, or be kind of like a peacekeeper,” Unruh said, adding that with lived experience the ambassadors may be able to connect with that individual more easily and calm the situation down without escalating things.
Colleen Aitken, another proposed ambassador known affectionately by her peers as “Mom,” said she has high hopes that it would improve some strained relationships.
“All it takes is a few that aren’t being respectful to really put things down. But that’s why we’ve got to get in there and shake things up and let them know that it’s OK,” she said. “We’re taking care of it, one step at a time. But I see good things.”
DWS program co-ordinator Amanda Bonella said the idea has been building off suggestions from the membership following conversations with city hall.
“They’re struggling in their businesses already; they’re having to clean up all the debris that we leave … So let’s show them that we care about their business and care about the community,” Bonella said of the DWS membership’s suggestions.
She added that the program would provide the tools, such as bags and tongs, and a place to put garbage to be picked up for individuals who want to do that work but don’t have those means.
The second step of the program, Bonella said, is “not just about pleasing the businesses – it’s also about creating opportunities for people that are currently struggling.” That part of the program would aim to give paid work with local businesses, she said.
“Everything from having a casual labour pool, having some people that get regular employment out of it. There are some people that have employment skills and have some readiness, and they just need someone to give them an opportunity,” Bonella said. “The tagline of this group is ‘Elevate from within.’”
The candidates for that aspect would come with training provided through local organizations, and with the hope of getting regularly scheduled shifts of work with local businesses.
Bonella said she hopes to see a pilot for the program starting “as soon as possible,” having all the logistics figured out and a proposal out. All the program needs is funding.
“We’re asking anybody and everybody if you’ve got five bucks. The good thing about a group like this is it doesn’t take much. They’re very, very efficient. It is not bureaucracy at all, so this pilot project, everything all in is only going to cost around $30,000,” she said.
“It’s going to give probably at least 30 to 50 people an opportunity, and multiple businesses will benefit.”