Update: Bylaw action from city not necessarily solution for homeless camp

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UPDATE: A statement from the Salvation Army has been added into the article

FORT ST. JOHN, B.C.—Bylaw enforcement action from the city is not a long-term solution for the homeless encampment that has built up in front of the Salvation Army’s Northern Centre of Hope, according to city councillor Trevor Bolin.

Recently, residents took to social media to voice complaints and frustrations about the setup. Concerns ranged from fire safety to substance use to the appearance of the camp. 

Bolin recognized the worries of locals, and noted that homelessness in the city is a larger issue than one temporary setup.

“There are quite some community concerns about it, and it’s a wide issue. It’s not just an aesthetics issue, but core safety and health,” he said. 

citywide count in 2020, conducted by the Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society, showed a 25 per cent increase in homelessness in Fort St. John compared to 2018.

According to Bolin, the City of Fort St. John’s chief administrative officer has met with the Salvation Army to discuss solutions.

“As a values-based Christian organization, The Salvation Army is committed to providing person-centered, compassionate care and life-changing support to all those in need,” the organization said in a statement.

“We are committed to upholding and continuing programming and services, as we have always done, in Fort St. John in our current shelter and look forward to expanding our housing services once our new facility is operational.”

Though there are actions the city can take unilaterally to dismantle an encampment through bylaw enforcement, Bolin said, these actions may only be a bandaid on a bullet hole.

“If the city steps in and [enforces an unsightly premise bylaw] and clean it up and move it out—at what point in time is it just moved a block away, or three blocks away, then into residential or vacant areas?” he asked. 

Bylaw enforcement does not solve what may be a capacity issue, the councillor explained.

“I strongly feel that the Salvation Army and their team there are dealing with it as quickly as possible,” he said. “And I think that if the city can take the approach of ‘it takes a community to deal with this and help them in any way, it’s a win for all.”

According to The Salvation Army’s statement, “homelessness is growing across the country, not just in our community. This larger concern requires support and cooperation from several Fort St. John community stakeholders.”

“The Salvation Army is a committed partner in Fort St. John, and we continue to work with our community to address growing needs,” it continued.

The Salvation Army’s new supportive housing unit, built next to the original centre, was delayed by a late hydro connection. Construction is once again underway in the several-story build, and it will hopefully be ready for occupants in the fall. Bolin mentioned that this delay might partly be responsible for any current capacity problems.

The Northern Centre of Hope currently offers 36 beds for men and women 19 years of age or older, along with three separate shelter programs with a total of 56 beds for men, women and children, according to its website.

Its emergency shelter program has 24 beds for adults and includes programs that aim to integrate individuals into the community.

The centre also offers low-barrier transitional housing, which provides longer-term spaces for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. This program involves a comprehensive array of supports that aim to assist people in achieving stability and moving forwards.

High barrier transitional housing is supportive housing for people who have completed addictions programming, have a serious mental illness or a concurrent disorder, and is a first step out of treatment for many. This program is for people who are clean and sober from all substances.

The centre also offers a family room, which can house a family of up to six; an extreme weather shelter in the winter; and a community meal and drop-in program.

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