Alberni Valley organizations prepare for holiday season to help those in need

Port Alberni, BC

This holiday season, like all years, the Alberni Valley Salvation Army have been working hard to help feed the unhoused community and provide needed necessities.

Pastor Michael Ramsay and his team of staff and volunteers will be providing those in need with a Christmas meal on Dec. 25 at the Bread of Life at noon. In addition, meals will be brought to shelter guests at Our Home on Eighth and to those living in the new tiny homes on Fourth Avenue.

“Further to that, for those who are completely out of doors, we’ll send out our trucks and volunteers and we’ll have packaged up Christmas meals that we will bring out to people who are outdoors on Christmas as well,” Ramsay said. “We’ll try and make an atmosphere where it’s as much as family as we can for people.”

Ramsay said this year the Salvation Army has seen more than 2,400 people accessing their hamper program—which he said is higher than in previous years.

 “It’s astonishing actually for a community this size,” Ramsay said. “I don’t know that I’ve actually seen anything like it before.”

Ramsay said the Salvation Army provides a variety of hampers for people who are “housing insecure” and who are living outdoors.

“We know some of the homeless and those struggling with housing security…some of them have pets as well so we’ve been even able to provide little presents and hampers for people who have pets,” Ramsay said.  “Our team of volunteers, staff and community members have really been going that extra mile to try and make this - which can be a very difficult month and very difficult season - as good as possible and really try to include people in our family here.”

Those struggling around this time of year who have children were also able to access the Salvation Army’s Angel Program. The program allows children to write down items they hope to get for Christmas and community members can chose to purchase those items for the young ones.

“We know there’s no greater feeling for a parent on Christmas day to be able to give their children that one thing that they’ve been dreaming about,” Ramsay said.

The Bread of Life also offers warm meals to those in need every day of the week.

In October of this year, the Salvation Army received $12,500 for their community food bank from the Province of B.C. Ramsay said this funding was put directly towards feeding people either through the hampers or the Bread of Life.

In addition to the added meals and services the Salvation Army provides over the holidays, the organization also runs a 25-bed shelter at the Bread of Life Centre.

“I know that certainly when the temperature drops or when it gets rainy that’s when we’re certainly nearest our capacity,” Ramsay said. “I know there’s been days when we’ve had to open our overflow emergency weather response.”

According to the 2023 province-wide point-in-time homeless count, 163 people in Port Alberni identified as being homeless, a 30 per cent increase over the past two years. Sixty-six per cent of respondents identified as being Indigenous compared to 15 per cent of the census population.

The Port Alberni Friendship Center operates Our Home on Eighth, a shelter that offers 19 emergency spaces and a dozen 30-day beds for those experiencing homelessness.

“We also offer those sleeping rough a place to shower, a hot meal, a place to keep warm during the day up until 10 p.m. and access to services on-site such as counselling, activities, housing support services and access to a physician,” said Cyndi Stevens, executive director of the Port Alberni Friendship Center.

Stevens said the shelter on Eighth is full on most nights by 6 p.m.

“We sadly have to turn away more people on colder and rainy nights,” Stevens said. “We will often call other sites, such as sobering centre, Salvation Army and Maitland Shelter to see if they have space.”

Stevens added there is still a long list of unhoused individuals in the community and many who may need more complex care.

Walyaqil Tiny Home Village on Fourth Avenue, designed to be temporary housing, opened in late October. Stevens said it’s now full and there is a waitlist.

“We are working towards finding additional funding to bring 10 more tiny homes on property in the New Year,” Stevens said. “So far, this project is changing lives, and we see what a positive impact it has to those who are ready for this type of housing program.”

According to data from the Province of B.C., a sharp rise in deaths among those experiencing homelessness continued in 2022.

The deaths of at least 342 people experiencing homelessness were reported to the BC Coroners Service in 2022, continuing an increase in deaths among the unhoused population of 138 per cent over the previous two years, according to a news release.

The toxic drug supply has significantly contributed to the increased number of deaths among people who are precariously housed or experiencing homelessness, states the release. More than eight out of every 10 deaths in the review period were classified as accidental, and of those accidental deaths, more than nine in 10 were determined to have been caused by unregulated drugs. The period studied was between 2015 -2022.

Townships with the highest number of deaths between 2015 and 2022 were Vancouver (306), Surrey (146) and Victoria (118).

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