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Service providers discuss potential for homeless problem in Prince Rupert

According to two service providers in the community, Prince Rupert doesn't have a significant homeless problem - but a homeless problem may not be far off.

"People who are actually homeless and living on the street are probably small in number, but the number of people potentially homeless within a short period of time is probably several. These are people who are 30 days away from being homeless if something happens to disrupt their income level," said Capt. Gary Sheils of the Salvation Army.

"Homelessness is becoming more of an issue. I've been in this program for four and a half years now and it wasn't as big of a problem when I started...It's getting worse, and that's just because poverty is the root of all homelessness. With Income Assistance and what they give out, it's not enough to house a person," said Judy Garbutt, Housing Outreach Worker with the North Coast Transition Society.

Currently those on income assistance receive about $610 per month, of which $375 is designed to cover housing costs. But rent in Prince Rupert has increased. According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, in June the average rent in Prince Rupert was $624 while the average rent for townhouses was $627. That cost is without taking anything else into consideration.

"People get roommates to share rent. Hydro costs have become a huge problem. We've had a lot of people who have been cut off by BC Hydro and a lot of people are looking to be placed into somewhere that Hydro is included...There is nowhere in town where $375 will pay that. Nowhere," said Garbutt, with Sheils noting the problem only gets worse as the temperature drops.

"There are lots and lots of people who are going month-to-month, paycheque-to-paycheque. And in this climate, doing that is even more of a possibility...The cost of everything goes up, but their income doesn't," he said.

Another cause of concern is the availability of quality affordable housing and the options for it.

"All the landlords I deal with don't have the vacancies that they use to have," said Garbutt.

Along with issues related to housing costs is a lack of training for those who may need it about the responsibilities associated with housing. Garbutt says there was once a life skills program available for those in need in Prince Rupert, but the funding was cut.

"People get a cheque and spend it all instead of paying the bills," said Garbutt of some of the problems people who took the course experienced.

"The people who went through this program that were housed are still being housed. It was a very successful program."

The Prince Rupert Salvation Army currently has a 10-bed shelter housed at Raffles Inn, and does look at extra rooms when the need arises, while the North Coast Transition Society helps women and children in need and escaping abusive relationships and is operating near capacity.

"We need a shelter. We definitely need a shelter," said Garbutt, noting that more funding to address the problem is needed as well.

"A lot of this is because all of the funding has been cut."

And while much has been said about employment opportunities in the community now and in the future, Sheils points to the level of assistance provided by the local Salvation Army as proof of the high level of need in the Prince Rupert.

"Our shelter usage is about the same as last year. We're going to serve just under 48,000 meals this year, we served just over 48,000 last year and food bank usage is about the same as last year...There is still way too much need for a town of just over 10,000 people. For us to serve 48,000 meals is a horrendous figure. We're looking at doing 850 Christmas hampers for families this year and that is about 25 per cent of our town," he said.

"Nationally, one in 20 people receive help from the Salvation Army and here in Prince Rupert it is about one in four people. It's horrendous."

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