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Number of homeless increasing in Parksville Qualicum Beach

Accurate count is difficult here because so many homeless live in rural areas
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The Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness started four years ago when Robin Campbell showed the Qualicum Beach mayor a home video showing the deplorable conditions where some local residents were living.

Campbell, who also co-founded Manna Homeless Society, was giving out food and survival gear to local people in the video. After watching it, the mayor, Teunis Westbroek, gave it to then-Parksville mayor, Ed Mayne.

"Ed Mayne watched it and he told me when he saw it that he cried," Westbroek said at a public meeting held by the Task Force in Parksville on Thursday.

Mayne then appointed Coun.  Sue Powell to sit on the Task Force, which evolved to the organization it is today.

The public meeting on Thursday, held at the Forum in the Parksville Civic and Technology Centre, was attended by about 100 people. It was to update the community on the Task Force's progress, give information about the homeless count last year and discuss the strengths and gaps in the community.

The Task Force was approved for a federal grant last year that enabled it to hire a homeless co-ordinator, Sarah Poole, and it was announced at the meeting Thursday that the RDN has approved a grant to keep her in her job for another year.

Co-chair of the task force, Malcom Cox gave statistics from the recent homeless count conducted in 2013 and compared numbers to the 2011 count. This research, besides providing the community with rough numbers of homeless and those at risk of homelessness in the area, is also very important for garnering funding from government agencies, Cox said.

In 2013, 67 people were identified as homeless and that number has increased since 2011.

"We're starting to see an increase, and while we don't see the increase like we do in the Downtown Eastside (of Vancouver) with 400 or 500 additional people homeless, we do see five more people," said Cox, who is a retired Vancouver police officer. "Five additional people doesn't sound like a lot but it is — it's five more people that don't have a roof over their head."

He also stressed that the numbers collected are a low estimate and because the majority of the homeless people in this area lives in rural areas which makes it difficult to count them. Although people tend to think homeless people are often transient or passing through, 55 per cent of the homeless counted last year have lived in this area for more than five years. Thirteen per cent have been on the street for more than five years.

The majority of the homeless counted were men, at 65 per cent, but Cox said they are starting to see an increase in females on the street.

Lisa Clason with the Salvation Army talked about the extreme weather shelter which is housed in that organization's church in Parksville. She said since the shelter opened in 2011 it has usually seen one or two people come in on days that were deemed extreme weather (the call is made daily between November and March). In the 2013/2014 season it was a bit different as there was an extended cold period from Feb. 1 to March 3 when the shelter stayed open every night, and throughout that time there were between four and eight people in the shelter — eight is the maximum it can house.

Because people could count on the shelter being opened, more of them packed up their belongings and came to town, Clason said. "When they knew we were open that month, they came in," she said. "If we had a cold weather shelter that was open (consistently) from November until March they would come to it and they would call that their home in the winter, and that was what proved it to us."

Cox said the extreme weather shelter, supported by BC Housing, the Salvation Army and the Society of Organized Services, is the best those agencies could do for the time being. Ultimately the Task Force would like to have a reliable shelter that was open on a regular basis, he said, and one that didn't force people out into the cold at 8 a.m.

Homeless co-ordinator Sarah Poole detailed some of the work she has done since hired seven months ago. In that time she brought all the local service providers together who serve those who are homeless and at risk of homelessness.

"The fact that many of them didn't even know about each other was astonishing," she said.

Poole said the number one barrier that people face in the region is finding affordable housing. And many of those that do have housing spend the majority of the money they make or receive from social assistance on shelter. Regular social assistance provides someone with $610 a month if they can prove they have somewhere to live, if not they get $235 a month, Poole said.

"We're putting people in a position where they're having to make very difficult decisions. If you're asking people to spend more than they have on housing is that really a decision to be homeless?"

A homeless person costs the taxpayer on average $50,000 to $100,000 a year because they are using the most expensive services, Poole said, like hospitals, jails and courts.

Paying to house people works out to about $15,000 and $35,000 a year depending on the services they require, she said. Cox said the Task Force will continue to advocate and stress for the need for a long-term full-time supportive housing facility in the region.

Transportation has become another big issue for homeless people and those at risk of in the region, as they reside in rural areas where accommodation is cheaper or free, and then have a hard time accessing services in town.

In this area there is no longer a walk-in medical centre, since the Oceanside Health Centre opened last year. That facility is for urgent care only, so if people are trying to fill a prescription because they don't have a doctor, they are having to wait hours before they are seen, she said.

"That's a large gap within this community in addition to a general shortage of physicians," she said.

As far as getting funding from the province for a facility that would offer affordable housing with support, Parksville city councillor Marc Lefebvre said he and Coleman have met with the minister responsible for housing in B.C., Rich Coleman, a few times and they've basically been told that if Parksville "sweetens the pot" with land or cash, the province will provide capital construction money for a facility.

Poole said that since she's been with the Task Force having discussions with numerous local agencies about the need for more shelter and housing options, things are starting looking more optimistic. But the community needs to continue these discussions, continue to advocate for services and spread awareness, and it will be recognized, she said.

"There are funders who have funded housing options in other communities that are also looking and prepared to come into our community now that they know we are interested."