Due to the colder-than-normal winter of 2016-17, Sharon Welch said the extreme weather shelter was open more than ever before in its six-year history.
For this past season, the extreme weather shelter had 841 males attend, 153 females attend, including 23 peope under the age of 19. This represented 73 unique individuals, she said.
Welch, co-chair of the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness (OTFH) and executive director of Forward House, said in that time OTFH has done two point-in-time counts (one in 2011 and one in 2013) and it counted about 66-68 individuals who were homeless at the time.
“The challenge with a point-in-time count is you’re looking for homeless individuals who, by nature, are hidden individuals in the population,” Welch said. “What we’ve seen since that time is a huge increase in the number of visible homeless in our community, so folks that are sleeping in doorways or behind buildings or on park benches.”
The Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness held Homeless in Oceanside — A Community Forum on Thursday at the Parksville Community and Conference Centre. The forum covered the state of homelessness in the community, what the task force is working on and where it plans to go.
There was also a roundtable discussion with attendees who brainstormed ideas on housing, services and transportation.
The forum was attended by representatives from Parksville and Qualicum Beach councils, the Regional District of Nanaimo board, School District 69 (Qualicum) board and provincial government officials as well as MLA candidates.
During a question-and-answer period, school board trustee Elaine Young said she knows from her work at Springwood Elementary School that there are families who are homeless.
“People who are homeless are not necessarily addicted or involved in crime or anything like that. They live among us. The vacancy rates here are so low that anyone who’s renting could be homeless at any point,” said Young, adding that she wanted to know what the district could do to help.
Welch suggested the school district gather information and possibly refer the families to the Housing Outreach Support Team (HOST). Welch said between the SOS homeless prevention program and HOST, they’ve housed 30 individuals since 2015 and 83 per cent are still in the house.
“That is at a time when we’ve had close to a zero occupancy rate in the area,” she said. “The problem now is we’re very quickly running out of housing and we are actually looking at waitlists now for people that are trying to find somewhere to go.”
Welch said the proposed new affordable housing located at 222 Corfield St., for which the OTFH helped to secure a $30,000 grant to develop a building plan, would help with some of those needs, although it won’t be finished for about two years.
Elaine Thompson wanted to know what could be done in the meantime to help the homeless while the facility is constructed.
She asked if there was any way to get a drop-in centre or open a room somewhere where people could come in, have a cup of coffee and dry out before going back to their tent.
Welch said OTFH has spoken with B.C. Housing about what they can do moving forward, but she also said they want to create a cold weather shelter which would be open every night between October and March.
Renate Sutherland, OTFH co-chair and executive director of the SOS, said there are always opportunities to look at what else they can do.
“Perhaps one of the things we need to do is look at how can we create some day programming,” Sutherland said.