Shonnet Allen, co-pastor at the Church of Christ in Chilliwack. (Jennifer Feinberg/ The Progress)

Shonnet Allen, co-pastor at the Church of Christ in Chilliwack. (Jennifer Feinberg/ The Progress)

Faith communities’ response to homelessness in Chilliwack documented

Most reps said they're already helping by volunteering or donating to Chilliwack charities

When it comes to homelessness, some have asked publicly why Chilliwack churches don’t do more to help.

Pacific Community Resources Society (PCRS) recently put out a report: ‘A snapshot of Chilliwack Faith Communities’ Response to the Issue of Homelessness.’

With personal interviews/conversations with 28 reps of the 57 churches successfully contacted, the report documents the “knowledge, priority and response” to homelessness, as shared by those faith communities in and around Chilliwack.

Although the interviews were confidential, some participants were willing to chat with The Progress about the PCRS survey.

“I don’t think our church does as much as I would like,” said co-pastor Shonnet Allen of Church of Christ.

Participating in the survey made her reflect on their efforts for those living rough in Chilliwack.

“It made me realize how little we actually do in the big picture,” pastor Allen said.

With a list of 30 active congregants and 50 registered members of Church of Christ, the small number tend to do what they can. They’re somewhat limited physically and are mostly seniors.

“We’ve supported Cyrus Centre, and Chilliwack Supportive Housing to help people who need it,” said Allen.

“In general, we would rather that we helped an organization that offers some counselling and guidance.”

They hold a yard sale twice a year, with proceeds going to three local charities, and invite the needy to enjoy dinner and a movie at the church.

“Of course we know there are homeless people out there who need more support. We’re just not sure the best way to go about it even if we could,” pastor Allen said.

READ MORE: What is Chilliwack doing?

It is obvious to everyone that Chilliwack’s numbers of homeless have skyrocketed.

Steven Esau, PCRS director of addiction services, said most of what they do through PCRS is in response to the challenges of homelessness, and addictions in various communities.

READ MORE: Numbers tripled

One tactic is to seek potential resources and strengths already woven into the fabric of a community. That was part of the goal of the research and survey.

“So we do see a need for a community response to homelessness,” Esau noted.

“Chilliwack is unique, home to 68 faith organizations. With the survey we wanted to take a non-judgmental approach to see if homelessness is part of their faith in action, and if so how could we all work together on it.”

The survey and research for PCRS was conducted by Richard Niezen. He attempted to contact the total of 68 churches or religious organizations in Chilliwack by phone and then email.

A large number of respondents specifically said they needed “more education and information,” on how to help the Chilliwack homeless, and several said they thought they were doing as much as they could already to assist, whether volunteering with existing agencies and groups or on their own. It was deemed a “medium priority” by 50 per cent of respondents, and 64 per cent of faith communities said homelessness was something they were “working on addressing.”

“And so we need a higher level of response as a community to resolve it,” Esau said.

Even though the number of churches responding to the survey were less than half, many said they were hampered by a “lack of awareness” about the issue.

Many said they were already providing crucial services for the needy by volunteering at Salvation Army, Ruth & Naomi’s and Cyrus Centre.

“For some they are already doing as much as they can,” Esau said. “My thought is as we work to increase education and awareness collectively about the realities of homelessness, it will increase our opportunities to respond as a community. Maybe for some if they knew more ways, they’d be more likely to do something.”

Scott Gaglardi, lead pastor at First Avenue Christian Assembly, said they were happy to participate in the research.

“I think the survey was a good idea,” Gaglardi said. “As with any of these larger social issues, it will require a co-ordinated response from a community. Hopefully this will raise some awareness of what is being done — and begin the conversation about what else could be done.”

Some churches focus on preventive approaches among their congregations, while other groups might try the outreach approach.

“Our aim would be a response that is not either-or, but both,” the pastor said in terms of their prevention efforts at First Avenue Christian Assembly working with children, seniors and more. They contribute financially to the main trio of helping agencies, host the Coldest Night of the Year event in their building, and much more.

“As a congregation, we try to talk regularly about the issue, and encourage the congregation to frame our responses as positives,” he said.

Some of the “hate-filled” commentary posted against the homeless that can be seen online, doesn’t solve the problem.

“Of course we understand the frustration but the anger and violent responses aren’t going to help,” Pastor Gaglardi said. “As we consider this issue and our response to this issue, it’s important that is in framed in respectful, kind and empathetic ways. We want to offer some encouragement.”

One of the church’s slogans is: “Bringing joy to the city” and they actively seek ways to do that, he said.

Coun. Ken Popove, who chairs the Chilliwack Healthier Community network, said he was surprised to hear some thought that overall more education and awareness was necessary.

“Really?” he said. “From my point of view it is so clear. We see people all the time sleeping under alcoves or in doorways and we know we have to do something as a community.”

That no church or agency came through to offer up a space for warming centre for 2018 was “disappointing,” Popove said. “But there are good things coming for Chilliwack in regards to housing and wrap-around services. They’re on the horizon.

“We do need the faith communities to be aware of what’s going on and to talk to their congregations about how they can pitch in. This is not a city issue, it’s a community issue. It’s happening all around us, and we say it over and over. It’s going to take everyone to solve it.

“So I guess if we need to do a better job of communicating that, we’ll do it,” Popove said.

At least one church rep said it was more of the government’s responsibility than anyone else’s.

“Homelessness issue should be dealt with by government agencies and not left to the public or faith organizations. People are paying half of their income as taxes and government fees, so where are these monies?” was the comment recorded in the survey.

Another stated it was a question of rich and poor.

“For me the issue is poverty, not homelessness and drug addiction. As wealth is being drawn out of low and middle class homes, household debt increases and so does difficulty paying rent and covering basic needs.

“Homelessness is the end result of a systemic household failure. Support should continue to provide food and basics to the homeless, but our main focus should be keeping people from becoming homeless in the first place. Politically, a higher minimum wage, and higher welfare rates for a start. Also, the political will to spread wealth more equitably between rich and poor.”

The survey concluded with some takeaway remarks:

“There seems to be a general consensus that the Faith Communities’ biggest contribution towards addressing the issue of homelessness is their efforts to help support the family as a whole,” according to the remarks. “Parenting and marriage classes, programs for kids and teens, support programs for single moms are all efforts to keep families strong, and individuals mentally sound and stable.”

This preventive approach is intended to help prevent family breakdown and keep people housed.

The second biggest way… “is via financial support and volunteer hours with the local agencies” which are seen as those best “equipped to effectively deal with those that are homeless and the subsequent issues that they are facing.”

Although Ruth and Naomi’s, Salvation Army and Cyrus Centre were the three main agencies mentioned, “great admiration and appreciation” for all local groups spearheading efforts to address the homelessness issue was expressed.

“The Faith Communities acknowledge that this is a very complex issue that will not be fixed by a simple handout of free food or clothing – however well intended these acts of kindness are.

“Although, in general, the Faith Communities try to do their best in meeting the basic needs of the homeless, they are neither educated nor acutely aware of the real issues the homeless in our community are facing.

“The good news is that a significant portion of the Faith Communities want to help those in need, they just don’t know where to start.”

Thirteen of the total of 28 church reps who completed the survey said they were “willing to look at” additional opportunities to assist in partnership, and offered their contacts for following up.

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Chilliwack Progress