In His Own Words – Ron Van Wyk
The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and its point man on issues of homelessness, Ron Van Wyk, have been on the front lines of homelessness in Abbotsford for years. While the MCC has received a lot of praise for the good work it does for the less fortunate, both in Abbotsford and around the world, some, especially those within the community of Abbotsford’s most hard-to-house – alcohol and drug dependent citizens – have criticized the MCC for being a barrier to social progress.
We asked Ron Van Wyk for a no-holds-barred interview on the MCC’s role in how we got here and how we can move forward in what has become perhaps the single most important issue facing the community – the Abbotsford Homeless Crisis.
Abbotsford Today: How do you respond to the criticism that the homeless counts that the MCC conducts for the Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD) are tainted by the participation of the Abbotsford Police Department which makes many homeless people refuse to be counted?
Ron Van Wyk: MCC BC conducts the tri-annual homelessness surveys in collaboration with local social service agencies. In Abbotsford past surveys and the 2014 survey have involved among others the Salvation Army, 5and2 Ministries, Abbotsford Food bank, Women’s Resources Society of the Fraser Valley, Cyrus Centre, etc. Volunteers are recruited and trained prior to the survey and participate in the survey under the coordination of the local coordinating agency. This year’s survey was coordinated in Abbotsford jointly by staff from The 5and2 Ministries and the Salvation Army. Like all surveys, people are asked to voluntarily participate in the survey and they can end the survey at any point during the interview.
AT: Can you guarantee the citizens of Abbotsford and the Fraser Valley that this year’s homeless count is an accurate reflection of the real number of homeless men and women in our community?
RVW: The methodology that is used to conduct the tri-annual survey has been used since 2004 and is based on methodology that is generally accepted across North America. The same methodology is also use in Metro Vancouver. As participation in the survey is voluntarily it cannot be claimed that all people who live homeless are included in the survey. However, the survey does provide a valid and reliable point-in-time (snap shot) estimate of the number of people living homeless. The three homelessness survey reports to date (2004 to 2011) have always stated the qualifier that in using this methodology it has to be recognized that the count is in all probability an undercount of the number of people who live homeless.
AT: The MCC is an enormously influential organization in Abbotsford. How fair do you think it is for organizations like the Abbotsford Drug War Survivors, Abbotsford Today and others to lay so much responsibility for the Abbotsford Homeless Crisis at the feet of the MCC?
RVW: Homelessness in Abbotsford is of great concern to MCC BC as it is for other social services agencies that work on the front line of homelessness and many residents of Abbotsford. It is generally accepted to be a complex issue. However, it is an issue that can be solved if the community comes to together and demonstrates political will and take steps to end it. Since 2004 MCC BC has in collaboration with other social service agencies conducted homelessness surveys.
This collaborative work has contributed to an increase in affordable housing options in various communities in the FVRD. Examples include the Cyrus Centre, Christine Lamb facility on Clearbrook Rd, George Schmidt Centre at King Haven, more emergency shelter beds at the Salvation Army, homelessness outreach workers, new housing options in Mission, Chilliwack and Hope. MCC BC has also in various reports and through its participation in ASDAC, when that was still operational, advocated for and recommended additional much needed services and facilities such as long-term or permanent supportive housing options, ACT Teams (Assertive Community Treatment Teams), housing first options, access to health care professionals including mental health professionals, etc.
MCC BC has always stated and continues to state that much work remains to be done and that more provincial and federal funding dollars should be made available to Fraser Valley communities. MCC BC remains committed to work collaborative within Abbotsford to provide additional much needed housing options for people who live homeless.
AT: How frustrated are you with the Abbotsford Social Development Advisory Committee (ASDAC) and the lack of any progress on the homeless issue in Abbotsford under Councilor John Smith’s leadership?
RVW: Representatives from various organizations in the community have put in many hours of work into ASDAC and have made recommendations about measures to be taken that are derived from evidence that these measures show good results in providing solutions to homelessness. It is very disappointing that a number of ASDAC’s recommendations have not been implemented in Abbotsford.
AT: Many with the Mennonite community have expressed frustration at the lack of political will to do anything about the hard-to-house in Abbotsford and the fact that the homeless crisis has been allowed to get so out of hand. How much of that lack of progress are you and the MCC prepared to shoulder?
RVW: The lack of progress needs to be highlighted as a community concern. Political leadership is indeed much needed to make progress regarding homelessness at [the] community level. As stated above MCC BC continues to advocate where and when appropriate in favour of proven solutions. As also already stated, in addition to political will, the community also needs to receive additional provincial and federal funding. It is rather unfortunate that as a community we recently lost an opportunity to make use of provincial funding to provide much needed housing.
AT: Why do you believe solving the issue of homelessness has been such a difficult issue in Abbotsford?
RVW: Solving homelessness has proven a challenge across North America not only in Abbotsford. I think it is a difficult issue for the following reasons:
- The reality of people living homeless was denied in Abbotsford a decade or so ago
- De-institutionalization was not accompanied by tax dollars to provide supports at community level
- Municipal governments are expected to provide services and deal with “downloading” from federal and provincial governments without the required tax base
- The incidence of concurrent disorders among people living homeless coupled with inadequate mental health and addictions diagnostic and treatment services further compounds the issue
- The reality of residents not wanting facilities in their proverbial backyard
- The community not coming together sufficiently under united political leadership in support of much needed facilities and services.
AT: Can you explain to those outside of the Mennonite community or the faith community in Abbotsford what the arguments or objections are to providing assistance to those who suffer from alcohol dependence or drug addiction?
RVW: The disaster relief, community development and peace and social justice work that MCC is involved in across the globe and also locally is done in the name of Christ and is inspired by our Anabaptist faith imperative to provide help and care to those in need. People living with alcohol dependence and/or drug addiction are in need of professional assistance in addition to compassion, respect and understanding. Assertive Community Treatment Teams (ACT Teams) and Critical Time Interventions and the so-called Housing First approach are all showing evidence of progress in response to homelessness.
Others, including people in recovery from alcohol and drug dependence, take the view that abstinence based approaches are also showing evidence of progress in response to homelessness. The aforementioned services and approaches need to be strengthened where they do exist in our community and others that are not available should be provided. In order to achieve the latter, support is needed from all levels of government, the residents of Abbotsford, service providers and persons who live homeless.
AT: The MCC is on record as having sought and received an eviction notice to remove four homeless men, who were later victimized by the City’s use of chicken manure to disperse and displace them, from your construction site on Gladys Avenue. How does the MCC respond to accusations that through actions such as this, it is contributing to the homeless problem in Abbotsford?
RVW: At various times prior to the start of construction MCC BC received notice from the City of Abbotsford that people were living on our property on Gladys Avenue which was in violation of City bylaws. Residents complained and the police were called. MCC BC was required to address the matter or the City would do so.
We attempted to find alternative locations and to treat people with compassion and respect. In the process MCC BC worked with the Salvation Army, The 5and2 Ministries, Raven’s Moon Society and through our Rent Assistance Project we offered rent support to the persons who lived on our property. This process has not ended in a mutually acceptable way. Relationships broke down. Within our Anabaptist faith tradition we are expected to be in right relationship with God and one another. MCC BC realizes that it will need to work at healing and restoring these broken relationships.
The chicken manure incident was a callous act that has no place in our community and it was condemned publicly as such by MCC BC.
AT: Do you have any serious hope that Mayor Banman’s Task Force on Homelessness, primarily made up as it is, of the individuals and organizations which have been so impotent in the face of the Abbotsford Homeless Crisis, will somehow be able to succeed where they have failed for more than a decade?
RVW: I have been asked to be part of this task force and continue to constructively participate in the task force to recommend to City Council evidence based measures and services needed to make progress regarding reducing homelessness in Abbotsford. It is up to City Council to make the right decision for the community.
AT: How does the MCC propose to change the lives of the homeless people of Abbotsford who have for so long been told that their afflictions and resulting behaviours make them unhouseable in Abbotsford due to the city’s unwillingness or inability to provide low-barrier housing?
RVW: As indicated elsewhere in this interview Abbotsford needs an ACT Team, Housing First facilities, a contact or connect centre and additional long term supportive housing. As a community we need to continue to support the work done by service agencies that do provide housing options to people living homeless. The evidence is there of measures and action that do work. As a community we need to continue to work collaboratively with one another and people who live homeless to provide housing options. Nobody is “unhouseable”. Everyone in need deserves to receive compassion and care.
AT: Can you convince the Mennonite community; the faith community and the community at large that despite, what Barry Shantz of the Drug War Survivors has called the MCC’s ‘stranglehold on funding and allocation of resources for social development in Abbotsford,’ the MCC can truly be a force for positive change in the treatment of Abbotsford’s most vulnerable citizens?
RVW: MCC BC will continue to support within its means constructive, professionally sound and evidence based solutions to homelessness. In the process MCC BC will continue to be supportive of other organizations that can access funding for much needed services and MCC BC will continue to work on efforts to also access funding for initiatives supported by the community in order to provide services that are lacking in respect of people who live homeless and who are vulnerable.
AT: The phrase, “You’ve done drugs recently. I can’t help you,’ has become synonymous with the way services, which all taxpayers pay for, are delivered in Abbotsford. Will the MCC, along with care providers such as Positive Living, Abbotsford Community Services and the Women’s Resource Centre continue to oppose the facts and science behind harm reduction, as they have in the past, even though the City of Abbotsford was legally forced to abandon its ultra vires Anti Harm Reduction Bylaw?
RVW: MCC BC will continue to support within its means constructive, professionally sound and evidence based solutions to homelessness. When persons are ready to receive help, help must be available. Care should be provided no matter where the person finds her/himself in his/her life journey.
AT: You have been one of those who has been most vocally upset with the lack of positive change on the issue of homelessness in Abbotsford. Since so much of the problem seems to be with the issue of providing assistance to those with alcohol dependence or drug addictions, can the resistance to helping this most vulnerable of homeless population be overcome?
RVW: I will continue, to the extent that it is within my ability and reach, to advocate for professionally sound and evidence based solutions to homelessness. Various reports that I co-authored and contributions that I have made at various forums, committees, etc. bear testimony to this.
AT: Is there anything we forgot to ask which would have better described the MCC’s record on this issue and its position moving forward?
RVW: MCC is a faith based organization that works collaboratively and constructively in community. We do not live out our faith at all times in a perfect way. We continue to learn from those we work with and from our mistakes. We care deeply about people who are in need and who are vulnerable. MCC wants to continue to be part of professionally sound and evidence based community efforts to provide continuing improving responses to people who live homeless.
AT: Is there anything at all you would like to add
RVW: Thank you for this opportunity to address an important community concern that affects the lives of people who live homeless in Abbotsford. Thank you also for your concern regarding this matter.