You may not see them sleeping in doorways or huddled on street corners, but it's estimated there are more than 240 homeless people on the Sunshine Coast who need stable, secure housing and the chance for a better life.
"A lot of people are couch surfing, some people are out in the bush, some people are living in boats, whether they be on the water or in dry dock. Other people are living in dilapidated mobile homes and shelters and lean-tos and squats, just whatever they can do," said Eleonora Molnar, chair of the Sunshine Coast Homelessness Advisory Council (SCHAC).
She noted the absence of homeless people on the street makes it hard for many to believe the problem exists, which is one reason World Homeless Day was created.
The annual international day on Oct. 10 is meant to draw attention to the problem and provide opportunities for the community to get involved. SCHAC doesn't have any events planned this year, but they contacted Coast Reporter to let people know they are working on the issue, and there are ways the community can help.
The most recent survey of the Coast's homeless was done by the Schizophrenia Society in 2007. At that time, 240 people were identified as homeless, and the number has likely grown in the past five years.
The reasons are multiple, but low government subsidy combined with a lack of true low-income housing is often pointed to as the number one issue.
A monthly cheque of around $600 is the norm for a single person on welfare, and that money doesn't go far when you have to pay for food, transportation and housing, Molnar said.
"Many homeless people also struggle with mental health and addiction issues," she noted, which makes finding employment and secure housing all the more difficult.
To help, SCHAC currently has four initiatives they're working on.
First there is the Homelessness Outreach Project (HOP). Through HOP, Coasters in need can contact Jim White at 604-865-0624 who then decides if the person is eligible for emergency accommodation. That accommodation is provided at St. Hilda's Anglican Church in Sechelt in their multi-purpose building.
The church has also agreed to continue providing space for the extreme weather emergency shelter in the multi-purpose building this winter. The shelter is the second initiative of SCHAC and is open on nights the temperature reaches below zero degrees. Signs signalling the shelter's availability will be placed in Sechelt, Davis Bay and Gibsons on days the weather demands it. People can also find out if the emergency shelter is open by phoning the church at 604-885-5019.
The two initiatives are helping some people, but others are being left out in the cold, quite literally.
Molnar explained the two shelters are not always open and can only be accessed by people who are free from the influence of drugs or alcohol, which is why SCHAC wants to create a "low barrier" shelter to be open year round.
"We envision something that's open pretty much all the time where anyone in need can come any time," she said.
"We've been trying to apply to CMHC [Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation] to get seed funding to develop a business plan for a permanent shelter; however, they require that we have either the land to build it or the money - and we have neither."
Molnar asks anyone with either money or land who wants to help to contact her at 604-886-5603.
"They don't even have to commit, but for the purposes of CMHC, we have to show them something. So if someone just wrote a letter saying they had land and they were interested, that would be enough for CMHC to give us the funding," Molnar said.
The final area SCHAC is working on is youth homelessness.
"Youth are particularly vulnerable when they're homeless because it opens them up to sexual exploitation, trading sex for a place to stay or some food. It's really not a desirable situation, and we want to address that," Molnar said.
In an effort to solve the problem, SCHAC will soon write to the province to see if the old RCMP building on School Road in Gibsons could be gifted for a youth shelter.
While the problems are being addressed locally to the best of SCHAC's ability, Molnar notes more federal dollars are needed.
"It seems like there's funding for major towns and very small communities, but we kind of fit in the middle and for some reason we haven't been able to get the funding that places like Nanaimo get."
One way the community can help is to write letters to the federal government asking for more funding to address local needs.
"Putting pressure on the federal government to fund small initiatives like our HOP program would be helpful," Molnar noted.
© Coast Reporter