Think about this: how would life change if you or your partner were injured or became ill and could no longer work? What would you do if the depression you were diagnosed with became unmanageable and you no longer had a doctor? What would your life look like if you were a senior with no family and were experiencing dementia? Although the outcomes of such scenarios are unique to each of us, one thing is certain: aspects of our personal well-being will be challenged.
Our wellness encompasses the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Keeping well means looking after each of these at the same time. Sometimes, life throws curve balls that knock us off our feet and we find ourselves relying on other supports to help us through.
Not having resources to support our basic needs can lead to poverty and homelessness for short or a long periods of time. Declining or a sudden loss of wages, inefficient health care, increases in rent, and domestic violence are all contributing causes. Because of the countless factors and scenarios that can lead to homelessness, it cannot be ‘fixed’ with one fell swoop.
So what is ‘homelessness’? The Canadian Homeless Research Network defines it as:
“[…] the situation of an individual or family without stable, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it. It is the result of systemic or societal barriers, a lack of affordable and appropriate housing, the individual/household’s financial, mental, cognitive, behavioural or physical challenges, and/or racism and discrimination. Most people do not choose to be homeless, and the experience is generally negative, unpleasant, stressful and distressing.”
Between 2002 and 2008, the unsheltered homeless population increased by nearly 120% in New Westminster. (“Sheltered” homeless are considered people who sleep at emergency and temporary shelters, or are staying with friends: “couch-surfing”. “Unsheltered” refers to people who sleep on the streets.) Starting in 2005, the City undertook a number of actions, including developing a Needs Assessment and Strategy, establishing the New Westminster Homelessness Coalition Society (NWHCS), hiring a Social Planner and partnering with BC Housing to develop 28 emergency shelter beds and 84 longer-term transitional and supported housing units, that were eventually occupied in 2009/10. Based on the homeless count in 2014, it would appear that the efforts of the City, BC Housing, and the NWHCS is making a difference. Between 2008 and 2011, there was a 43% reduction in unsheltered homelessness and by 2014, a further reduction of 17%.
The NWHCS is a collaborative effort. It brings together representatives of service providers, community-based organizations, and residents who want to support initiatives to fight homelessness in this city. The Coalition has created subcommittees to oversee initiatives such as Homelessness Action Week (HAW) events, and a community street-cleaning social initiative called, I’s On the Street.
A case manager at Union Gospel Mission notes; “I think there are various distances from couch surfing to the street. I believe the term ‘homeless’ can be used in a literal way and there is also a more broad way of using the term that covers various aspects of the experience of being homeless. Not having a fixed address can be quite a headache day in and day out. In a scenario where an individual has work and is working full time, he/she needs to drag every piece of belonging he/she owns to the place of employment. That is obviously going to raise some questions with employers, but the difficult thing is that there are not a lot of storage resources in areas that have a higher population of people who are homeless. Then there are issues like mail, communication, and other logistics that most people take for granted. I have not even brought up the mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of not having a home to return to each night.”
“From different accounts,” the case manager continues, “I often hear there is the feeling of shame, embarrassment, guilt, and powerlessness. It is undoubtedly one of the most challenging and difficult experiences anyone can go through in their lifetime.”
The case manager stresses that each individual and situation is unique. Each person must have their needs assessed individually and with respect.
“We should take the time out to walk alongside each person and his or her situation.”
In addition to the emergency shelters (two for men and two for women and children), New Westminster’s service providers focus on a wide spectrum of needs. Carole Neilson, a Deacon at Holy Trinity Cathedral and coordinator for their weekly community breakfast club shares; “I am impressed with the many services and programs available to the homeless and at-risk persons in New Westminster. The city, the community, and churches are working together to assist those in need.” Just a few of these services include:
- Fraser Mental Health offers counselling and addiction programs
- Canadian Mental Health Association supports youth and adults experiencing mental illness with various levels of housing
- Family Services of Greater Vancouver has a range of counselling services, and works closely with the New West Police Domestic Violence Response Team and offers programs for newcomers and their families
- The Purpose Society‘s Stride with Purpose team cares for those living with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C (including youth) through outreach and case-management, health workshops, clinics, and distributing harm-reduction supplies
- UGM New Westminster Resource Centre serves community meals, offers client services (including free hearing tests, haircuts, and income tax assistance), programs, and resources
- Along with their shelter, the Salvation Army has programs for children, adults and seniors, and provides community meals and distributes produce
- Quest Food Exchange makes it possible for people struggling to access healthy, quality food
- The Seniors Services Society focuses on programming and housing for seniors
- The Lookout Emergency Aid Society aims at providing emergency and transitional housing
- FraserWorks BC prepares and connects people to employment
- Elizabeth Fry works with women in the judicial system and their families
- The Westcoast Genesis Society offers transitional housing and programs for adult male federal offenders on conditional release
- The Spirit of The Children Society serves the Aboriginal community
This is not a complete list! There is an excellent interactive map called the Community Service Asset Map developed by the City of New Westminster that provides a very comprehensive list of low-cost and free community services and supports: www.newwestassetmap.ca
In addition to these social services, churches have stepped up by tirelessly preparing community meals. Other low cost and free community meals are available, too. In addition to meals, there are a few places where people can access free groceries—the Food Bank that operates from Shiloh Church on Wednesdays is one of them. Breakfast and lunch is available on various days.
|Sunday||The Redeemed Christian Church of God (third Sunday only)||Salvation Army Church|
|Wednesday||Queens Avenue United|
|Thursday||Holy Trinity Cathedral||St. Barnabas Anglican Church|
|Saturday||Salvation Army Church|
Bill Wong, who has managed the UGM New Westminster Resource Centre for 18 years, says; “There are many good things all of us can do to help the homeless including the most obvious that is to give to proven charities that focus on helping the less fortunate. People can also give toward immediate relief resources such as food, clothing and hygiene products.”
Neilson believes giving financial support to organizations that help those in need is crucial to every outreach program; “it is my hope that the citizens of New Westminster will support outreach services in this city by learning about them. In this way, both the volunteer pool and financial aid will increase.”
So how can we help? Organizations are always looking for volunteers. Perhaps you have specific skills you want to use. Are you a professional hairdresser, an accountant, an attorney, a cook, a driver, or a retired teacher? There is a strong likelihood that your expertise can be used to help others. Buy tickets to fundraisers that support these initiatives. Donate, if you can.
The one thing, however, that makes the greatest impact is giving those around us—the woman who walks up and down the street talking to herself and the man who pushes a cart full of empty bottles—their personhood. We dehumanize and marginalize these people by making them feel they are a burden. By seeing past a person’s exterior, we can help them reclaim something that was taken. We are all so much more than a label. Steve (not his real name), said to me recently; “I know I look shabby on the outside, but I wish people could just see through to my heart and realize I am a good person and I’m fighting every day to go forward. It feels good when people look me straight in the eyes and call me by my name. It might seem like a small thing but it’s everything.”
Homelessness Action Week in New Westminster: October 10 – 14, 2016
Union Gospel Mission’s Community Thanksgiving Meal October 10th 12pm and 2pm at UGM New Westminster Resource Centre, 658 Clarkson Street
Connect Day at Holy Trinity Cathedral October 11th Free community breakfast, service providers “one stop shop”, and free clothing. Plus! A delicious meal prepared by the Sikh community. 541 Carnarvon St.
9th Annual Fundraiser Dinner and Silent Auction on October 13th Hosted by the NWHCS at the Columbia Theatre located at 530 Columbia St. Tickets: $75. For general enquiries and information about tickets, donating items for the silent auction, please contact Martha at 778-847-4468, firstname.lastname@example.org