Carl, Meals on Wheels Volunteer

While The Cabin, a daytime shelter for the unhoused, closed at the end of September 2022 it was a transformative experience that will inform approaches to homelessness in Abbotsford going forward.

“We’re disappointed The Cabin closed, however we’re extremely grateful that we had the opportunity to test the model, to empower peers with employment and purpose, and to facilitate housing for folks who would not have otherwise been housed,” said Megan Capp, Manager of Social Justice, Seniors and Housing at Archway.

“It was a year of learning and connection, and we’re grateful to our staff, participants and everyone involved for helping shape the services offered.”

The Cabin provided food, shelter from the elements, public bathrooms and services like mobile showers and harm reduction. Through the trust and relationships that were built, staff were able to connect individuals to housing and health services.

“For people who are living outside, having any rest, any refuge, any place of connection is really that first step in giving yourself the value, to think that there is some hope beyond the immediacy of your situation,” said Jesse Wegenast, a pastor and Executive Director of 5 and 2 Ministries.

In addition to meeting practical needs, the street community gathered at The Cabin to enjoy activities like weekly bingo nights and barbecues.

“We became known as Abbotsford’s living room and built a real community,” said Natalia Deros, the project co-lead.

We’re disappointed The Cabin closed, however we’re extremely grateful that we had the opportunity to test the model, to empower peers with employment and purpose, and to facilitate housing for folks who would not have otherwise been housed.” 

Megan Capp

Manager of Social Justice, Seniors and Housing, Archway

The Beginning

In the summer of 2021, staff successfully applied for a $1.5 million Strengthening Communities Services Grant from the Union of BC Municipalities with the support of the City of Abbotsford. The grant funded The Cabin and The Lodge, an overnight shelter, on a one-year pilot basis.

Due to the reluctance of landlords to rent to them and zoning bylaw restrictions, both projects ended up operating out of buildings owned by Archway. The Cabin was set up at the Delair Road location and The Lodge operated out of the Montvue Avenue location, previously used for Archway community living programs.

After finally securing a space, staff were working to launch The Cabin in December but ended up opening early on November 16th to meet the immediate needs during the BC Floods in 2021. The flooding and heavy rain evacuated many individuals from their camps, and those living on the street found it impossible to stay dry and warm.

“It was a chaotic start, but we learned and modified services as we built this project from the ground up,” said Natalia. “Folks appreciated the shelter from the flooding and then a very cold winter.”

The Cabin was able to hand out dry clothing, supplies and even tent replacements thanks to community donations.

Carl, Meals on Wheels Volunteer

Peer support worker Terena (L) with staff William and Natalia.

Collaborative Approach

“This project represented an exciting level of cross-organizational collaboration which has long been needed in our community,” said Megan.

“It brought the organizations working with the homeless population closer and we’ll continue collaborating going forward.”

Archway was the lead agency and partnered with 5 and 2 Ministries, Impact, Drug Wars Survivors, Cedar Outreach and the Abbotsford Restorative Justice and Advocacy Association (ARJAA).

The team worked closely with the Abbotsford Police Department Street Outreach and Response Team (SORT) as well as the Assertive Community Team (ACT). Both SORT and ACT help advocate for those experiencing severe mental health issues.

Employment Opportunities

The Cabin employed up to 35 individuals experiencing homelessness or with lived experience. These peers acted as consultants who helped inform best practices, provided context and understanding to issues and were often the first to respond to situations.

They were also employed as peer support workers, maintenance and cleaning staff. This not only empowered them, but also encouraged them to take ownership over the space.

Holly, one of the peer support workers said that having a job made her feel, “much more part of everything than an outsider looking in, which is what you feel like when you live on the street.”

Mary Grace, another peer support worker said she liked the job because it allowed her to do what she liked which is helping people. It gave her “purpose and some cash.”

Carl, Meals on Wheels Volunteer

Peer Support Worker Josh

Harm Reduction

A harm reduction tent on the site was operated by CEDAR Outreach and provided people a safe space to use substances. Peer support workers were equipped with Naloxone and called for medical attention when needed.

“There are lots of discussions around how to best utilize evidence-based approaches to address substance use, but in the meantime, we have a moral obligation to keep people alive. Harm reduction does that,” said Megan.

“Providing harm reduction services and supplies provides us an entry point into conversations with people. It helps reduce the stigma around drug use, so we are able to support them if, and when, they choose to access any supports.”

Carl, Meals on Wheels Volunteer

Individuals accessing The Cabin in Abbotsford.

Warm Referrals

By meeting people’s basic needs, staff were able to build relationships which made individuals much more receptive to offers of referral to substance use counselling, mental health services as well as long-term housing.

Staff were able to help several individuals obtain their Vulnerability Assessment Tool (VAT) screenings which is the first step to obtaining subsidized housing through BC Housing.

An early success was a peer who moved into Hearthstone Place, an Archway program, after becoming comfortable with interacting with Archway staff.

“We can’t just build supportive housing and expect people to come in,” Megan said.

“It’s a very scary thing for someone coming off the street to be put into these settings which, no matter how compassionate and trauma-informed they are, can still feel like an institution.

“We need spaces like The Cabin to really help people become comfortable with the idea of supportive housing, and then build connections to the institution.”

Staff have also supported individuals in obtaining identification documents and getting connected with health services.

Cass, a peer worker, helped an individual make an appointment for his COVID vaccine so he could visit a loved one at the hospital.

“He didn’t have a personal health number so he didn’t think he could get his vaccine. With a few phone calls we were able to get him an appointment the next day,” said Cass.

“We need spaces like The Cabin to really help people become comfortable with the idea of supportive housing, and then build connections to the institution.” 

Megan Capp

Manager of Social Justice, Seniors and Housing, Archway

Overrepresentation of Indigenous Individuals

Staff have reported that up to 80% of the individuals accessing the Cabin have an Indigenous background despite only making up approximately 5% of the general Canadian population. The over representation of Indigenous individuals who are experiencing homelessness is also confirmed by the 2020 Homeless Count and Survey Report.

“As I got to know the folks I was struck by the stories of abuse and intergenerational trauma,” said Natalia. “At the same time, I was also struck that regardless of what they went through, folks in the street community take care of each other. It’s a true community.”

Tony*, a peer support worker originally from a band in the Prairies, left his home to escape an abusive family. While he couldn’t speak on behalf other Indigenous individuals using the space, he identified the effects of intergenerational trauma on his own life.

“All that trauma that was put on us from the residential schools was passed down to us through the generations, and we’re still dealing with it.”

Tony said that places like The Cabin are important to give a connection to a community for urban Indigenous individuals like himself, who may be living very far away from their bands.

“If you do take the time to listen to people’s stories, I haven’t heard a single one that doesn’t make sense,” said Brian Gross, the Executive Director of Matsqui Abbotsford Impact Society.

*Real name withheld.

“It’s disappointing that our community has chosen to close a daytime space providing a door to safety, friendship, employment, housing, and more for a largely Indigenous population, and to individuals who are already so disenfranchised from basic necessities.”

Rod Santiago

CEO, Archway

Addressing Controversy

The Cabin stirred controversy within the community and has been the focus of complaints by a few neighbours around vandalism and disruption. A few of the neighbouring businesses, however reported positive effects on the area; citing a significant decrease in the amount of people loitering, overdosing in their bathrooms, and causing disruption for their customers.

After the protracted fight to open the first supportive housing project in Abbotsford in 2017, Archway has experience in advocating for services for the unhoused.

“Our vision is ‘justice, opportunities and equitable access for all,’” said Rod Santiago, Central Executive Officer at Archway. “Archway’s vision applies equally whether ‘all’ refers to child care spaces for toddlers or a place to call ‘home’ for unhoused folks.”

“There will never be a perfect location for services for those experiencing homelessness and we need to meet people where they are at – both physically and mentally.”

Reports from the Abbotsford Police Department showed that crime in the Delair neighbourhood had been rising before The Cabin opened.

“Through a law enforcement lens, The Cabin is an integral part of how we combat homelessness and how we help our most marginalized and victimized citizens survive,” said Inspector Kevin Murray of the Abbotsford Police.

To minimize the impact on the neighbourhood, staff conducted regular sweeps on the property to clean up and brought individuals into the centre from surrounding areas. A good neighbour agreement was strictly enforced, with the possibility of losing services if individuals don’t respect the space in and around the location.

ARJAA helped gather neighbours, surrounding businesses and service providers to come up with solutions together.

“Once you get people in that room together, it’s a human conversation. We aren’t going to solve homelessness overnight, but it will help people to gain some understanding and empathy, ”said Christine Bomhof, Executive Director of ARJAA.

“If we just give up on this problem because it’s too complicated, I think we will leave our children a legacy of hopelessness,” said Brian.

Carl, Meals on Wheels Volunteer

Marcella, the project co-lead (R) and peer support workers

Carl, Meals on Wheels Volunteer

Individuals on The Cabin’s porch.

The Lodge

The Lodge opened on January 31st on Montvue Road in downtown Abbotsford and its 15 beds were at capacity every night before closing on March 31st.

The 2020 Homeless Count and Survey Report noted 166 beds available in emergency shelters, transition houses and extreme weather shelters in Abbotsford. While The Lodge added 15 extreme weather shelter beds it was still not enough for the estimated 600 individuals experiencing homelessness.

Since many beds, including those at The Lodge, are designated and zoned only for extreme weather this leaves people without a place to stay for most of the year.

The Closure

The Cabin became well used with around 100 individuals a week accessing the space. Since The Cabin got off to a late start, staff wanted to request an extension on their funding until November 30th. Unfortunately, The City of Abbotsford instructed staff to only request an extension to the end of September so the centre wouldn’t close at the start of the extreme weather season.

“It’s disappointing that our community has chosen to close a daytime space providing a door to safety, friendship, employment, housing, and more for a largely Indigenous population, and to individuals who are already so disenfranchised from basic necessities and rights that the rest of us often take for granted,” said Rod.

The Cabin closure left only one small daytime drop-in centre available in Abbotsford.

While more shelter spaces open in extreme weather, they close during the day which will once again leave the street community struggling to find warmth and shelter in the winter.

“It’s been so great for people to have a place to dry off from a rainstorm and grab a hot cup of coffee. People could also escape the heat for a bit during the summer. Without a daytime shelter in the winter, people won’t have somewhere to escape the cold. The Cabin was also a place to get toques, mittens and even a warm blanket,” said Sandi, a peer support worker.

Want To Help?

Homelessness is a complex issue that can be linked to addiction, mental health, trauma, high housing costs and more. We need proactive solutions across all levels of government and within community. 

 If you’re interested in seeing long-term sustainable supports for those experiencing homelessness, we encourage you to contact your elected officials to voice your concerns. 

Going Forward

The need for proactive and collaborative services like the Cabin have been highlighted during a difficult year with the flooding, ongoing pandemic and freezing conditions.

“Everyone has the right to life and to have access to food and shelter.  Archway and our partners are committed to finding a way to work together to provide these basic human rights,” said Megan.

“Going forward, we will be looking for other funding opportunities and evidence-informed, compassionate ways we can continue collaborating to create supports for the street community. We will continue to show individuals experiencing homelessness that we and our partners care enough to invest resources into helping them because you have to have hope to even begin thinking about the future.”

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