It’s a rumour with legs that keep running in circles on local social media chat forums.
But talk to front line workers providing services to Fort St. John’s most vulnerable residents, the online chatter has become perhaps their biggest frustration, "misinformation" and “rumour-mongering” they say has gotten out of control.
“Where are all the new people coming from are we all not a little worried,” questioned one anonymous member in a local private Facebook group on Saturday.
More than 100 responses quickly piled up over the weekend — some to counter the claims, others to simply turn the gossip mill.
Responded one user, “the homeless that were living in Vancouver etc were bussed up to live in the new homeless shelter. How wonderful is that. Thanks to our mayor Lori Ackerman.”
Claimed a second: “they pay for tickets for people and offer them incentives to move here.”
And a third: "Vancouver or Kelowna they r shipping them everywhere. The building by the banks is for them I think.”
But are homeless people really being sent by the busload to Fort St. John from other communities like the Downtown Eastside or Kelowna?
And is the new supportive housing project downtown really being built for them?
“No, they are not,” says Jared Braun, executive director of the Salvation Army in Fort St. John. “I think most significant communities across the province have the same narrative that’s going around.”
The Salvation Army currently provides three housing programs for vulnerable residents at its Northern Centre of Hope on 99 Avenue, including a 50-bed emergency shelter, all of which are at or near capacity.
It's also the social agency tasked to operate the new 42-unit supportive housing complex next door; stable long-term housing for those at risk of or experiencing homelessness in the city.
About two dozen residents from the Northern Centre of Hope will move in to supportive housing following a grand opening in November. Others are being referred for a unit from partner agencies like the Women's Resource Society and the Friendship Society.
“If we’re fighting homelessness, we want to provide home,” Braun says. “We're trying to differentiate with people that this isn't another newer, bigger emergency shelter, this is longer term supportive housing.”
He anticipates the new building will free up space at the Northern Centre of Hope so it can accommodate a growing number of people without housing.
Because certainly the number of homeless in Fort St. John has grown over the last four years.
Statistics from the Women’s Resource Society have shown that, with 76 counted during the last point-in-time snapshot in 2020, a 25% jump from a previous survey done in 2018. Nearly half had been homeless for more than a year, and two-thirds living with two or more health conditions such as addiction, mental illness, or physical or learning disability.
“It’s not true that people are being bused up to Fort St. John,” says Amanda Trotter, executive director for the Women’s Resource Society.
"Obviously we’re a very busy city. We have lots of new people coming and going all of the time,” she says. “We have a lot of job fairs on, people are coming and looking at job fairs, and I think what’s happened here is homelessness has become a lot more visible.”
The city's next homeless count is due to take place in 2023, and people who find themselves at the doors of the Salvation Army or Women's Resource Society come with different stories. Some are in mental distress with no support, some fleeing abuse, some sunk into addiction with synthetic street drugs that are now half as cheap and five times as potent—and, worse yet, five times as deadly.
Others still have been seniors or people who simply can no longer afford their rent or to support their family.
“It's difficult for people to drive the community, especially long-term residents, and to see people that are homeless and some of the things that are fallout from that, and feel like, well, this can't be happening in my community, surely that's coming from somewhere else,” says Braun.
The reality, he says, is that many counting themselves homeless were once someone’s neighbour who lost their job, who went through a mental health crisis, who had a marital or family breakdown that pushed them into a place they never would have expected.
“We have people that have lived and worked in the community for years and years, and then hit a crisis where they've lost everything, and they're now living in our facility,” he says. “They used to own a home, they used to own a vehicle, their own business and so on.”
Both Braun and Trotter say there are people who have come to Fort St. John from other parts of B.C. and Canada either for family or, in many cases, for work — only to end up in a bind because they couldn't afford their training tickets while also paying for a place to live, or work was more intermittent than they expected.
"There's a draw to the economic drivers, the economy, the resource industry, and when they come they find it's maybe more challenging to get into than what they had thought, and they didn't have the resources available," Braun says. “If you only work for a couple of weeks on, a couple of weeks off, and you haven't got your financial stability in place, you can find yourself in a really tough spot really quickly."
“But there's no evidence and no rationale for any health authority, or BC Housing, to be putting people on a bus to move them from one location to another."
Both Braun and Trotter hope the new supportive housing building will ease pressures for those at risk of or experiencing homelessness in the city.
But they also admit the new building is not a cure-all. With 17 people already on the wait list, a second building is needed as the first one opens.
“We are hoping that the Salvation Army shelter helps the situation considerably,” says Trotter. “We know it’s probably not going to fix the situation, and obviously affordable housing is an issue we need to keep on the agenda because its important to everybody in Fort St. John.”
Braun says there will always be homeless people as, for some, "that's just the option that they want to live with.”
“The repercussions of mental health and addiction will probably always be a part of a community; we'll never fully eliminate that,” he says. “But what we're doing with this supportive housing should really provide a significant contribution to the solution in Fort St. John.”
“Every community is struggling with their own challenges,” he adds. “We just need to do our work together to serve those that are here, and to find out who they are, to really be personal with people and get to know their stories... They’re somebody that deserves love and attention and dignity.”
Read more: Inside Fort St. John’s new supportive housing complex
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