Above: Sign for the Salvation Army on a building in downtown Portland. Photo via iStockphoto. 

By Sports and Lifestyle Editor Cole Schisler

Across BC, rates of homelessness are rising. For some, the issue can be attributed to the lack of affordable housing. For others, it could be loss of a job, addiction, mental illness, or just one bad decision that spirals out of control.

In Nanaimo, The Homeless Hub estimates that there are 174 people experiencing absolute homelessness, 115 people living on the streets, anywhere from 137 to 567 people living in hidden homelessness, and per data from 2007, an estimated 4,662 people using social services. There are three homeless shelters in Nanaimo, two of which are women’s shelters run by the Island Crisis Care Society, the other shelter is the Salvation Army New Hope Centre. For the sake of length, this article will focus on the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army New Hope Centre is a high barrier men’s shelter. High barrier shelters do not regularly admit intoxicated clients, however the New Hope Center does. Clients found using substances while at the shelter will be asked to leave. There are 24 shelter beds, four self contained living units for individuals in the Fresh Start transitional housing program, and 12 beds to serve as a Corrections Canada community residential facility for clients on partial release or parole.

The Salvation Army is a Christian organization, however they keep shelter services separate from their faith related services. Clients are welcome to pray, and are provided with faith based services and literature if they choose to seek it.

Lynwood Walker is the Shelter Manager of the New Hope Centre. The shelter frequently operates at 106 percent occupancy, and will turn away between four to six people on a nightly basis. Around 40 percent of the clients stay for less than a week, however they are permitted to stay up to 30 days. Walker believes that there is no contributing factor to homelessness that is particularly striking—he sees it as a mix of various societal issues.

“If you look at the demographics of our client base, we have several different demographics,” he said.

There are transient clients moving through the shelter on their way to another destination, who may be between employment, or simply on the move from one community to another. There are clients who have had affordability issues in the housing market. There are clients who had lived in subsidized housing, but lost their spot due to income, or behavioural issues, such as addictions or mental illness. There is also another level of clientele who are recommended by hospitals and other agencies.

The Salvation Army has many programs to help not only homeless people, but struggling families and financially troubled community members, even students. They offer two daily meal services to the community, they also offer donated bread, buns, and pastries for free to the community. The Salvation army is equipped with laundry and shower facilities; on the weekend, they open it up to members of the community so they can clean their clothes, and themselves, at less cost than commercial laundromats.

“This operation could not exist without the support of the community,” Walker said. “We get a huge amount of support from the people of Nanaimo and we really appreciate that. We count on that support, we value that support, and we do our very best to honour that support by providing the most effective service that we can.”

The demand for the Salvation Army’s services is correlated with the times that welfare cheques arrive. When the cheques come out, there is less demand, and in the time leading up to when the cheques come out, there is increased demand for meal services and shelter requests.

“This is a smaller group,” Walker said. “Sometimes we have people who do have their own rental places, but since there’s too much month left at the end of the money, they book themselves into the shelter so they can get the bed and the meals supplied. That way they don’t have to supply food for the last week of their month.”

The Salvation Army is required to submit statistics and client information to a BC Housing database to keep track of how many times a client has been to the shelter, and how many days they have stayed in total. This information helps them determine what kind of homelessness the client is experiencing, and helps the shelter manage support programs for them.

Some clients qualify for the Fresh Start transitional housing program. There are four self contained units that are like studio apartments, equipped with a kitchen, a bathroom, a bed, and a living area. The program helps clients build a personal development program. The program helps them learn basic living skills, find subsidized housing, and employment. The program lasts between three to six months.

J.P., a client currently in the Fresh Start program, offered to share his experience.

“I’ve been somewhat struggling with homelessness for the last five years or so, due to an anxiety disorder, and five years ago I was diagnosed with osteoporosis,” he said. “Being diagnosed with that stopped me from doing the work I’ve been doing all my life, I worked on farms, and now I can’t do
that anymore.”

After J.P. lost his job, he was forced to move to the city where it was harder to find work. Due to his anxiety, he had trouble finding a place that was comfortable. When he left Courtenay BC, he went to Victoria and stayed at a Salvation army there. From Victoria, he was sent to the Salvation Army in Vancouver where he completed a personal
development program.

“It gave me an idea of what was out there and they gave me some certifications like WHMIS, (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information Systems), and a few other things,” he said.

J.P. spent some time in Kamloops BC after completing his personal development program, but was unable to find adequate housing.

“Affordable housing, when you’re on assistance, is really hard, because you can’t afford to eat.”

J.P. came back to the Island and tried to find a comfortable living situation in Nanaimo. Because he was on assistance, most of the places he could afford were around $375 a month, which put him in an uncomfortable environment.

“When the rent is cheap, and the landlords don’t ask for references or anything like that, you get stuck in a situation where it’s a party environment. With my anxiety, I can’t deal that,” he said.

J.P. is now in the Fresh Start program. The Salvation Army provides a safe environment for him as he transitions toward a permanent housing situation. They also help him build a personal development plan so he can make ends meet on
his own.

“The Salvation Army has given me time to research finding a housing subsidy through the Canadian Mental Health Association,” he said.  “My subsidy just came in this week, and now I can afford to pay $600 or $650 for a place. The fresh start program has given me a chance to research finding a decent place, without placing a time limit on me.”

While there are many people like J.P. who are on the path to recovery through shelter programs like those provided by the Salvation Army, there are still many people living in varying degrees of homelessness and poverty. The issue of homelessness will likely continue, but with it, there will continue to be those that give hope for a better future.

Cole is a second-year Bachelor of Arts student majoring in creative writing, minoring in political science. He has an interest in all things exciting, mundane, or otherwise. He hopes to one day become an author, actor, comedian, editor, and rapper, while moonlighting as an astronaut.