Half of Abbotsford homeless shelter occupants have been from out of town

Number below 70 per cent predicted, but organization that runs facility says Abbotsford's location may be the cause.

Just under half the occupants of the temporary winter shelter on Riverside Road over the past year have been from out of town.

Barely half of those who have stayed in the Riverside Road homeless shelter this year have been from Abbotsford.

Just 52 per cent of clients so far this year have been local homeless men and women, with the remainder coming from other communities.

That number is significantly lower than the ratio usually seen in shelters operated by Lookout Emergency Aid Society, said executive director Shayne Williams.

At the society’s other facilities, usually around 70 per cent of clients are local.

Williams suggested that Abbotsford’s location means it is a logical stopping point for transient men and women moving along the Highway 1 corridor and may account for some of the difference.

He also said some local organizations that help the homeless focus on Abbotsford-based clients and often refer out-of-town men and women to the shelter.

Williams said the 40-bed facility has seen significant turnover of clients. As of Dec. 2, 92 per cent of shelter occupants were currently from Abbotsford.

“People come and go from our shelter continually,” he said.

The socio-economic makeup of shelter occupants varies greatly. Some just can’t find or afford a place to rent at the time and move on quickly, while others are chronically homeless.

The temporary shelter opened last December, and was originally slated to be operating just for the winter. But additional funding from BC Housing allowed it to remain open through spring of 2017. Funding to keep the facility open has not yet been announced.

Mayor Henry Braun said he has taken note of the rate at which homeless from other communities are ending up in Abbotsford’s shelters and on the city’s streets.

“Anecdotally, I do notice there are faces on our streets that I haven’t noticed before,” he said.

“I’ve met homeless people who have only been in Abbotsford for a week or two and they move on, they just need a job, they got a job and away they go … Others, there are people on our streets who have been here for 50 years.”

He said that’s understandable in some cases, but also speculated as to whether some are being moved around by other jurisdictions.

Although rumours have circulated about homeless men and women being sent elsewhere by service providers to reduce pressure in their communities, firm evidence of such practices has not yet surfaced.

Whatever the case, Braun says the city has a responsibility to help. But he added that he has been assured that the local homeless will be prioritized when the new supportive housing building opens early next year.

Lookout deputy executive editor Keir MacDonald previously told The News the organization does not actively shuffle people between its shelters throughout the Lower Mainland.

Individuals do sometimes move about the region on their own and end up staying at several of its shelters, but the society does not encourage them to go to a particular shelter, he said.

But, he said, the organization does often give its clients bus and taxi vouchers to help them get to where they need to be.

“Taxi fares and bus tickets is probably one of the most common asks we get from any shelter user,” he said.

Case plans are created for those staying in a Lookout shelter, with one goal finding where the person might have connections that can help, according to MacDonald.

If they have family, friends, or a network in another town or province, Lookout will often try to help them get there, often using income assistance to help cover the costs.

MacDonald said Lookout will not buy someone a ticket to a community where they have no connection but said it cannot always confirm stories given as reasons for wanting to go somewhere.

“Quite often, we’ve got to take their word for it,” he said. “They’re not always as forthcoming in terms of where they’re from and where they’re going. We do what we can to facilitate situations that make sense.”

Tent city occupants in Vancouver have told Black Press that they gravitate towards locations with resources to support them, as well as areas with shelter or a place to sleep without being bothered.

– with files from Kelvin Gawley and Ashley Wadhwani