City's homeless count drops

New Westminster's homelessness has dropped 20 per cent in the last three years according to the latest count, but there is a fear funding cuts have already turned that direction around.

The 2014 homeless count in Metro Vancouver done on March 11-12 and released Thursday revealed there were 106 homeless people in New West that night. That's 26 less than 2011, the last time the count was taken.

It was the first decrease the city has seen since the counts began in 2002. Back then, 74 were found. That increased to 97 in 2005, 124 in 2008 and 132 in 2011.

The 20 per cent decrease reflects a collaborative effort by various community service providers and the city, said New Westminster Homelessness Coalition Society co-chair Lorrie Wasyliw.

Previously many of the organizations worked independently, but with the collaboration those who are homeless don't have to go all over the city to get help, said Wasyliw, who is executive director of Monarch Place transition house for women.

Of the 106 New West homeless this year, 72 were found in shelters and 34 were unsheltered. There were 24 homeless children, 16 of them living in shelters, in the city. Eleven homeless were seniors with six of them living unsheltered.

New West made up four per cent of the region's homeless. However, its total was exceeded only by Vancouver (1,803), Surrey (403) and the North Shore (119). It was greater than larger centres such as Langley (92), Ridge Meadows (92), Burnaby (58), Tri-Cities (55) and Richmond (38).

Waslyiw said accessible transit is one reason New Westminster's count is higher than some bigger cities in the area. "We're in the middle of everything," she said. "It's very easy for people to be in New Westminster, get around New Westminster. And it is because we do have a strong presence of service provision in our city. Our mayor and city council have a strong commitment and are known for stepping up [on the homelessness issue]."

She is worried, however, the numbers have already started to grow because funding has been reduced to some of the city's more effective programs. Wasyliw cited the Lookout Emergency Aid Society's contract to provide outreach and referral services not being renewed, the Senior Services Society's contract to provide temporary housing to seniors was canceled, and the Hospitality Project's funding to provide advocacy, outreach and referral services was cut off at the end of March.

She said the community is particularly missing the work the Hospitality Project did because its main focus was to provide service for the hidden homeless like couch surfers staying with family or friends. It also helped prevent people from becoming homeless because they were about to be evicted by either helping them keep their place of find somewhere else for them to stay.

"We are significantly missing that service [from the Hospitality Project]. It was a great project," said Wasyliw.

The count showed 18 of New West's homeless have lived in the city for at least 10 years while 25 had been in town for a year or less.

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