Anne White is an early riser. Taking her dogs out for a walk around her Harrison house, she comes across people who are not so lucky — those who are sleeping on benches overnight or in the doorways of businesses.
“This morning, there was somebody sleeping at the Villa Motel,” White said, sitting in the Agassiz Harrison Observer office on Aug. 14. “Somebody had a sleeping bag and it was all set up there.”
Harrison isn’t the only place White had noticed homelessness in the community — her church had also seen people taking refuge near the building, and even lighting fires to stay warm during last winter.
“That was hard for the people of the church, but it was also a concern because it was a very old wood building,” White explained. In January of this year, she approached the Agassiz Harrison Ministerial Association — an organization that encompasses St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, the All-Saints Anglican Church, the Agassiz United Church, the Christian Reformed Church and both the Harrison and Agassiz campuses of the Central Community Church — about what could be done.
“The conversation became really real,” White said. “It wasn’t just one church that was experiencing this.”
Agassiz’s Central Community Church had seen people struggling with homelessness come to the church in search of food, accommodations and in some cases money. Church pastor Eldon Fehr had also seen some of those people out in the community.
“Driving through town this winter, I saw people sleeping underneath the Shoppers Drug Mart front entrance,” he said, sitting across from White in the Observer office.
The homelessness that White and Fehr saw in Agassiz and Harrison over this past winter isn’t new.
Every three years, the Fraser Valley Regional District undertakes a homelessness survey, to see how many people in its communities are living with homelessness. These surveys are nearly always an under-count of the actual number of people dealing with housing insecurity.
Between 2008 and 2014, Agassiz and Harrison had between 12 and 20 people living with homelessness in the community. In 2017, the year of the most recent survey, that number had fallen to six.
(This decrease may be because of the severe winter 2017 had seen. The survey was conducted in March, and many emergency weather shelters were open. Because Agassiz and Harrison have no shelters, extreme or otherwise, it’s possible people who would ordinarily be living in Agassiz and Harrison temporarily moved to other communities to access these services.)
Across the Fraser Valley, many of those without housing have grown up in the area or lived here for more than 11 years. The most common reasons for being homeless include high rents, low income and a lack of adequate housing. Half have been homeless more more than a year, and three-quarters are older than 30.
In that initial January meeting, the Ministerial Association put together guidelines on how the local churches could best address the needs of the community’s homeless. But they felt more still could be done.
Together with the Agassiz and Harrison Area Healthy Communities Committee, Fraser Health, the District of Kent and the Agassiz-Harrison Community Services, the Ministerial Association began a project to bring more services to the community.
“Being because we’re faith-based, it’s like God really took over in this,” White said. “It unfolded incredibly fast.”
A small working group was formed in March to gather information on what Agassiz and Harrison’s homelessness situation really looked like, as well as begin work on a resource centre that would provide basic services for people seeking help in the community.
“We see as it unfolds, the arms of it are kind of getting bigger,” White said. “It’s really a wrap-around service that complements all the things that are being given in Agassiz.”
The centre would help people find the services they are looking for, whether that’s counselling from Agassiz-Harrison Community Services or a shelter in another community. White also hopes the centre could include showers for people who are experiencing homelessness, as well as a laundry facility. It could be a place for people to get additional clothes in the winter, or cooler clothes in the summer, as well as a place where the working group can gather information about homelessness in the community.
“We don’t know if it will all materialize,” she said. “But this is the path that we’re on.”
The group has already found a location for the centre in downtown Agassiz, and hopes to have it renovated and open by late fall. (The group is currently looking for people interested in donating services to help renovate the building; those who want to help can contact White at email@example.com.)
Eventually, the group hopes to open an extreme weather shelter in Agassiz and someday apply to BC Housing for funding to provide more services in the community.
For now, however, the focus is on getting the resource centre up and running. The group is working on a grant application to WorkBC that would provide funding for two full-time staff at the centre to collect data and help people who are homeless access services.
“We had a small group meeting to go over applying” for the grant, White said. “One of the people there, who works for Fraser Health, is homeless because her place was in that fire that happened in Chilliwack.”
“So homelessness takes lots of faces,” she continued. “She’s got some resources that other people who are more marginalized don’t have. But homelessness is homelessness.”
“Really, in the big picture, (our goal is) helping people who are displaced and marginalized get the help that they need so they can live like the rest of us expect to live,” he said. “With a roof over their heads, with food in their stomach, clothes on their back. And hope.”
White nodded. “I think to give people hope again, that they have some hope for tomorrow.”
The Agassiz Harrison Homelessness Working Group is currently undertaking a survey to find out more about homelessness in the area. This survey has been sent out to partner organizations in the communities, and the overall results will be discussed at the September Healthy Communities Committee meeting.