More federal homelessness cash now within reach of Abbotsford

City still ineligible for hundreds of millions of dollars distributed through Housing Partnering Strategy.

Construction is underway on the Gladys Avenue supportive housing project.

As Abbotsford has struggled to deal with a growing homeless population over the last decade, it has been ineligible for millions of dollars in federal funding.

Last weekend, politicians from around the country voted overwhelmingly to ask the federal government to expand the number of communities eligible for the bulk of funding through Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS).

But while tweaks to the program announced last week may put Abbotsford in line for some additional money, the city will remain walled off from the majority of the country’s homelessness funding for years.

Seventeen years ago, the federal government launched its HPS, and designated 61 communities to receive the bulk of funding under the program. Seven communities with the largest homeless issues were selected in B.C., but Abbotsford was not one of them.

But even as the city’s homeless population has grown in the years since, the list of designated communities hasn’t changed.

In 2014, the federal government committed $600 million over five years to the HPS program. But the majority of that – 80 per cent – is reserved for designated communities.

Those cities – Kamloops, Kelowna, Nanaimo, Prince George, Nelson, Vancouver and Victoria – received a combined $10.2 million in 2015-16. The past year, Nanaimo has provided HPS funds for a cold wet weather shelter, to the local John Howard Society transition house for men with addiction issues and to the local women’s resources society.

In Prince George, HPS money has funded seven projects, including a support worker to help visitors to a drop-in centre find and maintain housing by providing food, hygiene and health care; a drop-in centre; and a project to provide immediate and permanent housing and support to at least five homeless people.

Thirteen per cent of the funds were for “rural and remote” communities with fewer than 25,000 people, leaving Abbotsford able to apply for just a slice of all federal money to address homelessness.

While the city received $400,000 in HPS funding over three years to develop a new intake system last May under a stream of the program reserved for “innovative projects,” it has been unable to receive ongoing funding like that obtained by Prince George, Nanaimo and Kelowna.

Government funding for the Riverside Road temporary shelter, the Gladys Avenue supportive housing project, and housing subsidies all comes from the province.

Mathieu Fillon, the communications director for the minister of families, children and social development, said if the designated communities were being chosen today, Abbotsford would be selected. But with contracts for the existing communities running from 2014 to 2019, he said the ministry couldn’t move to include Abbotsford and others similar at the present time.

Still, he said, “Abbotsford was one of the cities we were thinking of” when the decision was made to allow larger communities to access $11 million in new money through the “rural and remote” component.

The increase is part of $111 million in additional funding announced last week. Much of that will still go to designated communities, though.

Nelson, for example, will see the amount it receives increase by 50 per cent, to $177,000. Cheryl Dowden, the co-chair of the community advisory board, said “those funds will go a long way,” noting the community hopes to hire a new outreach worker.

Filion said the city’s situation had been raised by local MPs and the city will continue to be eligible for $12.5 million in innovative projects funding.

Mayor Henry Braun said he raised the issue, along with the need for a National Homelessness Strategy, during a recent visit to Ottawa.

“We made the case that we need help,” he told The News. “We can’t do it on our own.”

When contacted Monday, he hadn’t yet heard that the changes to the HPS would allow the city to access funds.

Last weekend, members of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities – including politicians from Abbotsford – voted overwhelmingly in favour of a Fraser Valley Regional District resolution to ask the federal government to broaden the HPS program to include more communities.

FVRD chair, and Chilliwack Mayor, Sharon Gaetz said Monday she hopes the overwhelming support among municipal politicians “will really give the federal government the impetus to look at this policy.”

She said Ottawa must take another look at how homelessness issues have changed since the HPS program was first launched 17 years ago. Municipalities, she said, don’t have the tax base to address a complex and growing social issue such as homelessness.

“What would be helpful to us is to have sustainable funding.”

She said, though, that it was also important that money for new communities not come from those cities currently receiving funding.