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Problems of homelessness

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Homelessness, like most difficult issues, doesn’t go away, although numbers rise and fall. A count of homeless people recently completed by MCC, Salvation Army and other agencies in Abbotsford, B.C., shows a 29 percent increase from the last enumeration, in 2011. Churches, individual volunteers and social agencies are all involved in ministry to homeless people, but the recipients of that help assert that it’s not enough.

The issue is as complex as the many different realities of the people caught up in it.

Homelessness was and is a political issue:

  • It was hotly debated in recent local elections in Abbotsford, B.C., the city now famous for spreading chicken manure in a homeless camp. Most homeless people were isolated from the campaign rhetoric, although some fought by building an “in your face” tent city right across the street from Mennonite Central Committee B.C.’s new building.

Homelessness is economic:

  • Some find rental costs simply unaffordable at their income levels. Others have no income due to loss of work, loss of a social safety net or because they have “slipped between the cracks” of health and welfare systems.

Homelessness is part of personal crisis:

  • Some homelessness is secretive and hidden. Some people take to the woods. Others couchsurf by staying with one set of friends after another, and some – especially women with children at risk – simply do what it takes to stay out of sight.
  • Each experience of homelessness is a hard result of a difficult life, especially for those with mental illness (22 percent in the 2014 survey), substance abuse issues (41 percent), or being cut off welfare services (28 percent). Marriage breakup is another contributor.

The encouraging news is that many churches, more individual Christians, and Christian and secular agencies and community groups are showing increasing commitment to help homeless people and the system that produces them. B.C.’s MCC estimates that 85–90 percent of individual volunteers in ministries to the homeless in Abbotsford are practising Christians.

The discouraging news is that “nothing is simple,” as the report of the survey group makes clear. Researchers list the needed resources, including psychological and psychiatric help, food, health care and mentoring, to add to the well-meaning desire in the community to just provide more beds.

“Beds aren’t the issue; support and services are,” says one worker. Meanwhile, agencies make repeated calls on governments at all levels to provide more financial resources.

—Barrie McMaster

See also “Homeless in Abbotsford”

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