Housing is the first step in addressing homelessness, but it takes a team of compassionate health care professionals to provide the necessary wrap-around support services to lift people up and out of a difficult situation.
Much of the heavy lifting is accomplished through outreach teams. These frontline workers tirelessly advocate for people who have lost their voice and need assistance in reconnecting with local health care agencies and support services in their community.
They actively support people living in Maple Ridge to prevent homelessness or respond to people who are homeless.
There are a number of community agencies in Maple Ridge that provide outreach. One of these agencies is Coast Mental Health, a registered charity and non-profit organization that supports people with mental health challenges.
It operates three facilities, offering 150 homes to people who are at risk of homelessness in Maple Ridge, while assisting another 180 people (since January 2019) with short-term rent subsidies, case management support, crisis counselling and drop-in requests and referrals.
Currently, 75 people receive ongoing rent subsidies and supports.
Coast Mental Health’s outreach team has five employees who oversee clients living in Maple Ridge, Pitt Meadows and beyond. Funding for these services is provided by BC Housing through the Homeless Prevention Program and the Homeless Outreach Prevention Program.
“We support people who have not been housed for many many years, so we’re providing them with the life skills to manage a home; this includes things like learning how to pay bills, food shopping on a budget, and learning to live with other people,” says Mark Dewitt, an outreach worker at Coast Mental Health.
Dewitt explains that Coast Mental Health receives at least 30 self-referrals a month.
“People request assistance in housing applications, persons with disabilities assistance, and with more frequency, guidance with old age security pensions.”
While there are a number of social service agencies available in Maple Ridge, many people choose to connect with an outreach team because they either lack the capacity or know-how to make these requests on their own.
Outreach is an essential part of building a healthy community
The Fraser River Indigenous Society, also has an outreach team.
Lizette Peters and her colleague, Jim Riley, oversee 65 files within their community.
“It’s more than enough to keep us busy,” says Peters. “We’re happy because some of these files are inactive, but at the same time, we don’t want to forget anyone, so we follow up on each file for up to two years.”
Fraser River Indigenous Society and Coast Mental Health both participate with other local agencies in a self-organized frontline worker committee. Representatives meet regularly to discuss strategies to best support people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
As a group, members are assisting people who have chronic health issues, are dealing with divorce, unemployment, or financial difficulties related to an injury or disability.
It may also include situations where individuals and families have lost their homes through landlord evictions.
“People we come in contact with have difficulties applying for housing because they often get turned away for not having adequate references, or they don’t have identification, or they’re unable to provide a credit check because they don’t have a bank account,” says Heidi Smith, outreach worker with Coast Mental Health.
Outreach works with landlords to build their trust, she added, providing them with assurances, so they will give clients a chance.
Smith explains the role of outreach is more than just finding a home for people in need, it’s also about keeping people housed.
“Each client’s lived experience and trauma is unique and requires an individual approach in care and supports.”
Heidi Kendrick received supports through Coast Mental Health after a difficult divorce that led to the foreclosure of her home and a short stay at a women’s safe house.
“It’s here where I connected with outreach in Maple Ridge,” says Kendrick.
Kendrick explains how Coast Mental Health’s outreach team helped her care for her daughter’s serious medical condition, which allowed Kendrick to find a local doctor and the health services to keep her daughter well during a very difficult time in her life.
“I honestly don’t know where I would be without them,” says Kendrick. “I was going through a lot. I was depressed. I’m here today because of outreach services.”
By Susan Hancock, senior manager of communications and community development with Coast Mental Health, a non-profit organization represented locally by the Maple Ridge Pitt Meadows Community Network.