Last week’s headline-making move by the city to dump chicken manure on a known homeless camp has refocused a light on the ongoing issue in the community.
Jesse Wegenast of 5 and 2 Ministries, who has worked with Abbotsford’s homeless population for years, hopes the global media coverage will draw attention and eventually solutions to some of the issues surrounding homelessness.
“This was so ridiculous and got so much coverage that in many ways it’s the best thing that could have happened.”
He’s heard a lot of sad tales about camps being taken down, including slashing of tents and the use of bear mace to make them uninhabitable.
“This population has gotten so used to being booted around by everyone from bylaw to police officers that there needs to be some real restitution of relationship,” said Wegenast.
He said before any progress can be made, trust has to be built.
“There is so much entrenched distrust between the homeless community and the city that, until that relationship is restored, little can be accomplished.”
Wegenast believes Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman’s decision to publicly apologize for the manure incident, visit the Happy Tree site and talk to people was a step in the right direction.
He said the city now needs to build relationships with organizations that already have the trust of the homeless community, including the Warm Zone (a shelter for women on the street), 5 and 2 Ministries and others.
“The city puts no real effort in engaging with the people who are working on the ground.”
Ward Draper, the director of 5 and 2 Ministries, said his organization and several others, including the Cyrus Centre and the Salvation Army, worked with the city several years ago to create a protocol for clearing homeless camps.
That included giving camp residents 48 hours’ notice and informing service groups so they can be on hand to offer aid to those being impacted.
“They stopped really using it,” said Draper, adding that his group hasn’t received a call from the city in at least two years.
He said the city usually notifies the Salvation Army, but some homeless don’t want help at all.
He feels communication between the city and some of the service groups has broken down.
For those living on the street, being forced to abandon their camp is nothing new.
Nick Zurowski was camped out under the Happy Tree when workers from the City of Abbotsford came by and proceeded to spread chicken manure on the camp, driving the homeless away.
He didn’t go far.
Now he’s siting back in an old folding chair under a tree, surrounded by several of his friends, just a little farther down Gladys. It’s a new spot to rest while he plays “cat and mouse” with the bylaw officers.
“They move us around a fair bit,” said Nick.
He said “mobility means survival” in the homeless community. Because he has a bad knee, he said he can’t stay in a camp in the woods “out of sight and out of mind, the way the city likes it.”
As a result, he’s been dealing with bylaw officers more and more frequently.
He said normally bylaw officers allow him to take his belongings when a camp is being cleared. However, if the clean-up occurs when a homeless person is not at the camp, things can change.
“They just take it (belongings); they take it to the dump,” said Norman, one of the other homeless men in the group.
“So we’re told,” added Nick, explaining that sometimes they go somewhere for a meal, or to the bottle depot, and find their items gone when they return.
According to the city, any abandoned items that appear to be worth more than $100 are stored for 30 days, but the rest is cleared away.
But for Nick, the items are just gone.
“Somebody will tell me that bylaw (personnel) was here with a truck and everything is gone.”
Denise has been homeless for several years and recently was forced from her camp.
“They bear sprayed our tents,” she said.
Most of her belongings were destroyed during the clean-up.
“It was my home.”
While homeless camps are being moved on a seemingly routine basis, some areas once considered to have chronic homeless issues have improved.
Tina Stewart, executive director of the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association, said in the past two years, there has been a decrease in the number of visible homeless people in the downtown core.
“It really hasn’t been a problem for us,” she said.
Other than the statements by the city manager and mayor, the city has not made further comment on the issue, and all media questions are handled by the communications department.
John Sutherland is hoping to shed some light on the problems.
Sutherland is chair of the Abbotsford Social Development and Advisory Committee (ASDAC). He said a meeting is scheduled for Wednesday (June 12) and the homeless issue is the only item on the agenda.
He said the committee’s mandate is to provide a resource to the city in dealing with social development issues, and “homelessness is certainly one of those.”
“There is the immediate issue of the chicken manure, but there is the longer term issue of homelessness, that doesn’t seem to be being dealt with very effectively here in Abbotsford.
“We need to put our minds together and see how we can take this challenge forward. That’s why we’re meeting.”
He is hoping to bring together community partners to discuss the issue.
He also said ASDAC has not been approached by the city recently to provide advice on issues of homelessness.
“I think for some ASDAC members, this has been a face full of cold water, to remind us that (homelessness) is a burning issue here in Abbotsford and it needs to be dealt with.”
The meeting begins at 10 a.m. at Abbotsford city hall.
Public reaction to the dumping of chicken manure has been mostly critical. But some Facebook comments do note that homelessness poses significant problem for local residents and businesses.
One reader wrote: “I do not see one single constructive idea of how to remediate the situation. Clean it up so that these people can still live this way? Is that really your idea of a solution?”
Another took a more hardline approach.
“How about apologizing to the local taxpaying residents who have become prisoners in their own homes? Public defecation, sex acts and dirty needles everywhere is not acceptable.
“They should have left the manure right where they dropped it.”
HOW MANY HOMELESS?
In September 2011, Abbotsford had 117 homeless people within its borders, according to a report from the 2011 Fraser Valley Regional District Homelessness Survey.
That number was down from the previous 2008 survey that found Abbotsford had 235 homeless people.
Mission’s number dropped from 100 to 54 homeless.
The report suggested Abbotsford’s drop could be the result of the city’s stricter crime prevention strategy and a city bylaw that prevents homeless camps from being erected.
However, Ward Draper, director of 5 and 2 Ministries, which works with Abbotsford’s homeless, said the numbers are much higher than the study indicates.
He said the homeless in Abbotsford in 2013 fluctuates from 160 to 240, depending on the time of year.
He said only 30 per cent of Abbotsford’s homeless people are outside all year long, as the majority find some form of temporary housing or 90-day programs, especially during the winter.
Among the 2011 survey’s other findings:
* Homelessness is a result of poverty, unaffordable rental rates, family breakdown, mental health issues and drug addiction;
* Nearly two-thirds are homeless for one year or longer;
* More women sought shelter in transition houses in 2011, rising to 34 from the 21 in 2008;
* More women were homeless in 2011, jumping to 45 per cent from 32 per cent in 2008; and
*Addiction was reported by 37 per cent and mental health issues by 20 per cent.