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North Shore homelessness initiative helps fill gaps in community outreach

The co-ordinated effort between 5 local governments has brought in nearly $3M in funding, which has allowed critical outreach staff to be hired
Angela George stands outside Tsleil-Waututh Nation's community development department building, where she serves as director. She says funding through the North Shore homelessness initiative has allowed her outreach staff to better connect with vulnerable members. | Nick Laba / North Shore News

Before his release, a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) man who had been in prison for two years was met by outreach workers from the First Nation.

He wanted to return to his community, but some people living there had concerns.

So outreach staff connected with his family in order to inform others in the community of all the work he’d done while incarcerated.

“We basically reached an agreement with the surrounding community,” said Joe Kwan, senior manager of member services at Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation), “that ‘Look, he’s tried his hardest completing all these programs. He wants to come out and start new life – can we make this work?’”

They were willing to give him a chance. “Now he’s flourishing,” Kwan said, adding that a room in a house was arranged for him. Now he’s fully employed, paying rent and the community has accepted him back.

But what if outreach workers hadn’t gone to meet the man? Where would he be now?

Because breaking through stigma is so challenging, a lot of the time it takes a worker in the middle to repair or build the bridges required to reintegrate someone into society.

Without that kind of support, vulnerable people fall through the cracks. But a newly completed initiative across local governments to address homelessness is leading to more success stories like the one above.

The North Shore Homelessness Action Initiative was an assembly of officials with a shared goal of improving coordination to prevent and alleviate homelessness. The group included representation from Squamish Nation, Tsleil-Waututh Nation, City of North Vancouver, District of North Vancouver and District of West Vancouver.

The project kicked off in January 2021 and a final report was released in June of this year. Emphasized in the report is a vision to work toward a single point-of-entry, housing-first model.

Roughly speaking, single point-of-entry means that vulnerable individuals navigate programs and services through low-barrier contacts, in most cases community outreach workers, instead of having to connect various access points themselves. A housing-first model prioritizes getting people into stable living conditions quickly, and being proactive about avoiding situations that can lead to homelessness.

While the final report and its objectives are complex, as is the issue it tries to address, the most tangible outcome of the project is a targeted boost to funding. As of April, grant work related to the initiative had brought in over $3.1 million in new funding. Another tranche of $860,000 was revealed at the end of August.

That funding allowed two outreach staff to be hired at each of three local hubs: Squamish Nation member services, Tsleil-Waututh Nation community development and Lookout Housing and Health Society.

How does outreach start?

Creating a connection can begin by walking through a community. Sometimes outreach workers are aware of a bridge that someone might be living under, sometimes they visit the Downtown Eastside, sometimes a family member has some information on other places people might be staying. With more resources, outreach workers can go to places they otherwise would have missed.

In any case, what’s critical is to reach each person where they’re at.

“To really try to empower them, we need to meet them wherever they’re comfortable,” explains Angela George, director of community development at Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

Many vulnerable and marginalized people don’t trust government institutions. Especially with Indigenous individuals, “there are naturally a lot of trust issues that are deep rooted as a result of residential school and day schools,” she said. “Many of our most vulnerable have experienced those things early on in their life, or second- and third-generation trauma as a result.”

That mistrust underscores the need to have outreach workers who are friendly faces that don’t look like people in positions of authority. It also highlights why having a single point of entry is a key component of successful outreach.

“They’re not going to walk into an office to access services,” George said. There’s a lot of shame that can come with being homeless or at-risk of homelessness, so having dedicated staff from the community serve as single access points has “definitely made an impact because the outreach workers are able to maintain regular contact.”

It was a huge gap in the past, noted George, who’s overseen Tsleil-Waututh’s outreach services for over 11 years. “When I began, and for many, many years, there was no funding at all to service those who are without shelter and at risk of being without shelter.”

But now with that extra support, there’s a larger ripple effect felt throughout the community. Hiring outreach workers through the new funding provides people with specific expertise. They understand homelessness, how to work with vulnerable people and how to connect them with resources.

Operational grants help connect people to housing needs

The most visible part of the resource puzzle, and the other major piece of the North Shore initiative, is housing. The funding from the project – in the form of grants – is categorized as operational, meaning it goes toward services rather than capital funds for building infrastructure.

Funds from other sources, usually BC Housing, goes to improve existing housing and build new stock – which has been historically lacking on the North Shore. Local examples of those include Kiwanis Lynn Manor in North Vancouver District, housing in Xwemelch’stn Village (Capilano 5 reserve), housing in Tsleil-Waututh’s Burrard Inlet reserve and the Eleanor in Central Lonsdale.

To support emergency needs, there’s the North Shore Shelter run by Lookout, as well as Youth Safe House and Seniors Safe House. And for transitional accommodation, there’s North Shore Housing Centre and Sage Transition house.

According to outreach staff, several individuals have been put in long-term housing solutions since launching the initiative. Another part of the strategy is to keep at-risk individuals from becoming homeless.

The existing system tends to be reactive, said Linda Buchanan, City of North Vancouver mayor and chair of the homelessness initiative’s steering committee.

“When you do preventative, upstream [programming] it’s really about investing in people at a much earlier age,” she said. And with the money local governments have gotten to strengthen community programs, it’s about getting people the resources they need when they need it.

“If they are experiencing homelessness, they have access to shower programs,” Buchanan continued. “If they are in need of housing, then what kind of housing do they need? Because if it’s a woman who has children who are fleeing violence, then that’s one kind of housing – if it’s somebody who needs supportive services around mental health, or drug or alcohol use, then that’s a different kind of housing and different kinds of support systems.”

Lasting impact of residential schools leaves Indigenous people overrepresented in vulnerable groups

Canada’s cultural genocide of Indigenous Peoples, concentrated in the horrific residential school system, has left lasting wounds on First Nations and their members.

Although Indigenous people make up less than five per cent of the overall population, they’re overrepresented five times over in many statistics like depression, welfare, hospitalization, incarceration and homelessness.

There’s been a massive effort to rebuild in recent decades, and much of that effort has been to create housing stock to bring members back to their communities. But getting people housed isn’t as simple as giving them a key.

When we’re talking about people coming out of jail, or someone who’s been homeless for 20 years, you can’t just tell them, “Here’s a nice apartment,” said Kwan, from Squamish Nation.

“We need to help them along this journey of independence,” he said. The extra supports that have come out of the initiative has made supporting these journeys more of a possibility, and Kwan said it’s helped forge connections across local governments and at the provincial level as well.

“We are very grateful to sit at this table as equal partners and be heard,” he added.

There’s a lot of power in the act of forming a human connection, especially when you’ve become disconnected from social supports that most are accustomed to. While a person’s name and address fill space at the top of documents, being able to learn someone’s story – their family, their culture, their passions – can be the first step in bringing them home.