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Abbotsford first B.C. city to roll out rapid response teams to homeless camps

Four other communities will be announced later this fall under new provincial initiative

Abbotsford in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, one of the B.C.’s hotspots of homelessness, will likely receive a lot of attention from other communities dealing with those issues in the near future.

Housing minister Ravi Kahlon Tuesday (June 13) announced Abbotsford as the first of five communities where the new Homeless Encampment Action Response Team will go into action when homeless camps arise.

Kahlon said the program combines officials from government and health authorities, bylaw enforcement, police and social service agencies in teams to supply support and information to people experiencing public homelessness. The model draws inspiration from a model trialed in 2017 following the development of a large homeless camp in Victoria with the model itself having come from Seattle.

He said that the other four communities benefiting would be announced in the fall.

Kahlon made the announcement about Abbotsford’s status as the first of five HEART communities when announcing $4 million for a new temporary homeless shelter to be built on the site of the so-called Lonzo Road encampment. Currently home to 15 people, the camp has housed up to 100 people over the course of its existence, dating back to 2020.

Remaining individuals at the site have until June 26 to leave it. Local authorities promise that the pending closure of the highly visible homeless camp will improve public safety. But the act of closing the camp represents only a solitary step toward solving what is the larger puzzle that is homelessness, with HEART touted as part of a multi-pronged response.

A 2020/21 BC Housing report summarizing 25 point-in-time homeless counts across identified 8,665 individuals experiencing homelessness. Many experts consider this figure too low in light of other research that some 23,000 people experienced homelessness at some time in 2019, be it for one day, a short period or long term.

RELATED: Lonzo Road encampment in Abbotsford to be cleared out and new shelter built

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Stephanie Gauthier, executive director of the Central Okanagan Journey Home Society, will be among those paying “full attention” to developments in Abbotsford as the HEART model rolls out.

“In fact, Journey Home Society meets every two weeks with 17 other communities in B.C. that are working to address homelessness in B.C. and Abbotsford is one of those communities that we convene with on a regular basis,” Gauthier said. “We all tend to share what is going on in our communities … and work toward joint solutions.”

Gauthier said she has yet to see how this model will work.

“But I think the focus on recognizing the need to be able to provide wrap-around support as much as possible to people who are outdoor sheltering is critical,” she said. “Our system is built to provide services to people who are connected to physical infrastructure … and quite often, people who don’t have those options, are left to fend for themselves.

“It’s a positive move for the province. They have obviously heard the recommendations of communities like Kelowna and Abbotsford and others who work around that space that there is a huge need to have a multi-disciplinary team that is engaged and coming up with solutions.”

This point also came through in Kahlon’s remarks. He said key to the program is building relationships with individuals experiencing homelessness.

“That’s the first thing…do a proper assessment of what their needs will be and then try to find solutions for these individuals as quickly as possible,” he said, adding actors in other models often fail to work together, despite the availability of resources.

Gauthier would also welcome if the province were to designate Kelowna as one of the other communities.

“Anytime our community can tap into additional opportunities, the better,” she said. “That being said, Kelowna has been very proactive in trying to address the needs of folks, who are sheltering outdoors,” Gauthier said, pointing to various resources.


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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