A recent Coalition report has estimated that over 260 families in Greater Victoria experienced a housing crisis in the last year alone. The Burnside Gorge Community Association (BGCA) offers a variety of programs and services that support families struggling with poverty. BGCA’s Homeless Family Outreach program works with families who are experiencing homelessness, or at risk of homelessness, to find shelter and/or maintain their housing. We spoke with Kathy Dallman, Family Housing Outreach Coordinator, to learn more about the program and family homelessness in Greater Victoria.
Families experiencing homelessness who come to BGCA for help may be couch surfing with friends or family, living in vehicles, or camping. Others are fleeing domestic violence. Kathy’s first concern when dealing with a family is securing safe shelter for the children, perhaps with a family friend or relative. Ideally the family will be kept together, but due to a lack of family shelter options in Greater Victoria, this is not always possible. Kathy highlights the value of local hotels who work cooperatively with the Outreach team to temporarily shelter families in need. Space in a transition house may be available for a single mother but men are not allowed. Another option, if the children are 15 or older, is to place the children in a youth shelter and have the parents sleep in adult shelters. However, many families prefer to remain together.
In addition to addressing immediate physical needs such as housing/shelter, food and warm clothing, the Homeless Family Outreach workers also support families by: advocating for them with employment and assistance workers, landlords, hotel managers, and others as required; connecting children and parents with existing support services; and encouraging families to become involved in BGCA community activities and become an active part of their community.
Burnside Gorge encourages families enrolled in its Homeless Family Outreach Program to become involved in community activities at the centre. Kathy describes the Thursday night family dinners as a “very welcoming environment” and an opportunity to engage in peer support by connecting with other families in similar situations.
Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding homelessness and poverty can discourage some landlords from renting to families experiencing financial or other barriers. Furthermore, finding an affordable place to rent in Victoria that will accept a larger family is extremely difficult. Other landlords however, are enthusiastic about the program and appreciate being able to contact BGCA if any concerns arise. If families are short on rent, Outreach workers have the ability to meet with their clients and offer to help with budgeting or look for further funding options.
For Kathy, avoiding evictions is a top priority because “it costs so much more money to re-house a family than it does to just maintain their housing.” Indeed the funds needed to top up a family’s rent are minimal when compared with the costs of moving, putting their belongings in storage, staying at a shelter, hotel, or friends house, searching for housing, and paying a new damage deposit and first month’s rent.
Additionally, lacking a permanent address can make it difficult to register children for school because they will not fulfill the catchment requirements. As Kathy asserts, “every child has the right to education” and homelessness should not be a barrier. BGCA Outreach workers negotiate with school principals to arrange exceptions for families experiencing homelessness. Enrolling the children in school is hugely important as it gives them “somewhere to attend every day” and “potentially, affordable lunches provided by the school system.” Also, this means the parents are free to work with outreach workers in the day to find housing, search for jobs, apply for income assistance, and ultimately gain stability for their family.
Lack of affordable housing and lack of income are the main causes of homelessness for families accessing the Homeless Family Outreach program. A family on basic income assistance will be “paying 100% of their income towards shelter costs alone.” Families often rely on their child tax benefit to cover all other necessities including food, clothing, transportation, hydro, school supplies, diapers, etc. This means families are very close to the edge and any unexpected costs can put them at risk of losing their housing.
What you can do to help?
There are always opportunities for new volunteers at Burnside Gorge Community Association. Current opportunities are listed on the BGCA website.
The Burnside Gorge Community Association resource centre is always looking for donations of toys, clothing, food, and monetary aid. The resource centre is stocked by community donations and is made available to families who attend Thursday night dinners or are connected to BGCA programs and services. Alternatively, by donating to the BGCA Christmas Hamper program you can help a family in need this holiday season. Visit burnsidegorge.ca or call 250-388-5251 for more details.