Street life giving way to shelter dwelling

The release of numbers from the Lower Mainland’s latest homeless count paint an interesting picture of change across the region.

Since 2008, the figures show, there has been a dramatic shift from streets to shelters, and Langley, thanks in large part to its new homeless shelter, is no exception.

In fact, of the communities included in the count, Langley saw by far the greatest percentage increase over three years (275 per cent, up from 12 to 45) in the number of people who are considered to be homeless, but sheltered.

Meanwhile, the number of unsheltered homeless people in the two Langleys combined dropped by nearly 20 per cent, from 74 to 60 over the same period.

Fraser Holland, one of Langley’s two homeless outreach workers, who is based at Stepping Stone Rehabilitative Society, was a little surprised by the figures released last week, saying his own experience led him to believe the numbers would be higher. But with this being the first count taken since the Gateway of Hope shelter opened in November, 2009, Holland admitted he wasn’t sure what to expect.

Working alongside Langley’s other outreach worker, Emily Aldcroft, Holland sees, on average, three to four new people connecting with the program each week, which would seem to indicate the number of homeless people in Langley is growing dramatically.

But there are other factors at play, he noted, including migration between shelters and communities.

As the weather improves many people are on the move from west to east, toward the Okanagan and jobs picking fruit, passing through Langley as they go.

During a period when overall homeless numbers have climbed eight to 10 per cent, Langley’s outreach workers have seen two surprising spikes, Holland said. The first is in the number of women 19 to 23 and the other, women in their 40s and 50s. Both jumped by about 25 per cent over the course of a year.

Holland said this is likely because the first group has become more visible as the young women enter adulthood and find themselves out on their own, while the older women may be leaving relationships with nowhere to go.

In the five years he’s been in the position, the overall number of people in Langley who are considered to be homeless has grown exponentially, Holland said.

“Whether it’s socio-economic or, as outreach goes along, we’re getting deeper into the issue (is unclear),” he said.

“When you’re looking just at homelessness on the streets, the numbers are down. But the working poor, couch surfers, people housed in unstable situations — take that into account and the numbers are going to grow, one way or another.”

This count did a better job of  tallying the number of homeless youth, Holland believes. Although the exact figures will always be elusive, “you have to try to at least factor them in,” he said.

Of course, numbers only tell part of the story.

Ten years ago, the typical homeless person in Langley was a man in his 40s or 50s.

“Now, it’s a mix,” said Holland. “You see everything.”

The economic downturn and splintering of families have left people of both genders and all ages at some degree of homelessness, whether it’s couch surfing, living in a shelter or literally out on the street.

People are no longer one cheque away from being in trouble. Now they’re one cheque away from getting out of trouble — and it’s a gap that’s very difficult to bridge, Holland said.

One of the main components of his job is to help get people into stable living situations — a task that often must be accomplished in stages and by building relationships both with potential landlords and tenants who may require a few chances before they’re able to settle in to a permanent living arrangement.

While Langley could always use a third outreach worker, Holland said, the support offered by other agencies, including Aldergrove Neighbourhood Services (ANS) and Family and Youth Services Society (FAYSS) has been invaluable.

As has backing from the public, he said.

“Anytime Langley has a need for something, it’s amazing the level of support (that materializes).”

When he was growing up in Langley, everyone knew what the poor areas of town were, but there weren’t people living on the streets, Holland said.

Today’s youth are seeing a whole other side of poverty and Holland is amazed at how seriously they’re taking the issue.

One local high school student, Desiree Wallace, even wrote and directed a play about homelessness, which she mounted at LSS last week as a fundraiser for the outreach program.

“Their adamancy that it’s not right, that we can do better — it’s great,” he said.

The youngest group he’s spoken to was a class of Grade 3 students.

“I couldn’t answer enough questions for them — one question just led to another.”

He’s aware, of course, that there are going to be negative impacts on the community when people live on the streets or camp in parks.

“As an outreach worker, you have to balance possible solutions with how they affect the community.”

Part of solving those problems is reaching a level of trust and mutual respect that can only be built over time. And regular meetings at a Langley City coffee house, St. Joseph’s weekly soup kitchen and other drop-in programs, have helped Holland and Aldcroft to forge those relationships, he said.

“When you know someone for five years, you get to know them pretty well — probably better than anyone’s known them in a long time.”


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