The first forum on the homelessness crisis in Terrace took place Tuesday night to a large crowd of concerned citizens.
More than 100 people filed into the Terrace Sportsplex Banquet room to voice their perspectives and experiences, highlighting a diversity of people affected by social issues in the community.
City council and staff heard from business owners, people experiencing homelessness, community members and social organizations over the course of two hours. Each of the 17 speakers was given three minutes, after which Terrace Mayor Carol Leclerc reiterated hers and chief administrative officer Heather Avison’s commitment to press the issue in Victoria this fall and lobby for financial support.
Leclerc says she was pleased with the high-turnout and noted city staff will compile the stories heard during the forum to help strengthen their case with the province.
“It’s easier to give evidence about what’s happening in our community and why,” Leclerc says, adding finding funding for three additional RCMP officers will be challenging during upcoming budget deliberations.
“Mental health is huge. Addiction is huge. You can put someone in a house, but if you don’t get those supports for them on a pathway to a better lifestyle or a better life, you’re missing a few of those key pieces. That’s what we’re going to go make sure of,” she says. “The Minister of Finance is always a good person to go to, and if we can, we’ll go to the Premier as well.”
With the high-turnout, more chairs had been brought out for people standing by the door and along the walls.
Diane Robinson, daughter of the owners of Tillicum Twin Theatres downtown, suggested re-evaluating Northern Health’s needle program and providing a contact list for businesses to call about people in their proximity experiencing homelessness.
She told a story about a 19-year old who had come into the theatre crying after Terrace RCMP had taken away her belongings. She was a talented carver and artist from Saskatchewan, but had nothing left after her family members had died, Robinson said.
Brian Gascon, owner of the local Canadian Tire, detailed his experience as a business owner, detailing the lack of capacity for policing in the community. “I’m dealing with theft that is double, triple the norm. I’ve been broken into more times in the last 12 months than I have over the last 18 years,” Gascon says, noting that the business has around 12 active files open with RCMP.
Another speaker, Terrace & District Chamber of Commerce president Loralie Thomson, noted local businesses have spent thousands of dollars on security upgrades or repairs to their property in response.
Others called for a more empathetic approach, highlighting the city’s lack of capacity for mental health and addiction services. Valerie Wright, chair for the Northern Women’s Recovery House Society, brought up the issue of having abstinence-based treatment available for people in need.
“Ksan has done a wonderful job, but since they’ve had to go low-barrier, we have people trying to stay sober, and people drinking and [using] drugs in the same building, in the same room,” Wright says, noting they have 1,800 signatures in support of building a sober women’s recovery facility.
Sonder House resident Tom Hanks who had been homeless for eight years took to the microphone to talk about the stigma he and others face when homeless or struggling with addictions. “The ostracization and stigma of addiction, in my experience, it’s worse. You feel pretty hopeless,” he says.
Dag Livgard from Delcon Construction proposed building small, easy-to-clean modular units with laundry facilities, insulation and other features. “The units would be constructed at a low-cost and provides for those people who want a stepping stone for something better,” he says.
Cal Albright, executive director of Kermode Friendship Society (KFS), turned to the crowd and spoke about the successes he’s seen with supportive programming.
“We have a program we just finished where we had a 70 per cent completion rate,” Albright says, adding that there are 30 people currently going through their essential skills program. Though more skilled workers are needed to help fill existing vacancies at KFS.
“No one applied for the job, and it’s a good wage. I can’t find anybody to be a clinical therapist in this community. That’s pretty sad,” he says.
MLA Elis Ross says he recognizes social issues in Terrace are not unique to the community, but are being felt across the province. He spoke about the need for all levels of government to come together to rethink current approaches to social issues like homelessness and addiction.
“It’s got to be a collaborative effort, municipalities can’t do it alone,” he says, noting however more education on addiction with provincial legislators may be needed.
Ross recalled speaking with 10 of his colleagues in Victoria while watching a debate on homelessness. When he asked if any of them had previous experience with drug and alcohol addiction, no one except for Ross had raised their hand.
“Just because you build something doesn’t mean you can resolve addiction,” Ross says. “I brought this up with my colleagues in Victoria, and I was shocked that none of my colleagues had direct experience with addiction. This is part of the problem.”