A new mobile outreach program has hit the streets of Port Alberni to help provide those in need with warm clothing, a hot cup of coffee, harm reduction or just a hug.
The Jericho Road outreach van—sponsored by the Jericho Road Church—has began scanning the streets of Port Alberni in December and will continue to do so on Wednesdays from 7-9 p.m. in January and February.
Inside the blue Ford Windstar, with a Jericho Road magnet on the side, Tina Van Unen, Diana Patterson and Aaron Franks are ready to provide displaced individuals with some essential items they may need on the cold winter nights.
Hot chocolate, coffee, toques, socks, gloves, blankets, cigarettes and resource information are among the items that occupy most of the van’s back seat area.
After years of coffee dates discussing a need for more outreach in the Valley, Van Unen and Patterson decided to make it happen. They borrowed a van, insured it and began collecting donations.
“Our idea is to reach out to the people on the street and find out what their needs are. Probably what we stock will change as we figure it out,” Patterson said. “Part of the idea is to just get to know the people that are out on the streets on a regular basis and build a rapport.”
Since its inception, Van Unen said the mobile outreach program has been successful.
“It’s been going really great. We were here one night and all of a sudden we had three people standing here and they all had coffee with me and were hugging me,” Van Unen said. “Even if we talk to one person it’s a success.”
The women say they are already familiar with many of the people they encounter on the street because they attend I Am Second—an addiction support group offered at Jericho Road Church.
“We already have a rapport with the community,” Van Unen said. “We just want to get out there and we want it to be known that we’re out there, the word is getting around slowly.”
In addition to warm clothing and a conversation, Van Unen said they hope to soon offer more harm reduction supplies.
“I don’t know how that goes yet so we’re working towards that; how to be a harm reduction site for dispensing supplies,” Van Unen said. “I’m looking into getting a harm reduction sticker for our van.”
Van Unen is trained and equip with a Naloxone kit in the case she is witness to an opioid overdose.
“They do needle exchange vans in Nanaimo, that’s where I got the idea from,” she said.
As a recovering addict, Van Unen said she understands the importance of knowing there’s a service to help people on the street.
“I know what it’s like to be out there…to get a new pair of socks and a coffee and a couple smokes, I loved it,” she said. “I knew when they were coming, I really looked forward to it because it gave me that little bit of hope that somebody cared so that’s what we’re trying to provide.”
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Van Unen said they target Fourth and Third Avenue but also wherever they see necessary.
Warm clothes, socks, toques and cash donations can be made to Jericho Road Church for the outreach program by calling the church at 250-723-2328 or Van Unen at 250-735-0512.
Port Alberni’s first official homeless count, that was conducted by the AVSCI in November, concluded that 73 people in the Valley without housing.
A report from the count cited the top reasons for becoming homeless are: conflict or physical/ emotional abuse; substance use/ abuse; eviction for failure to pay rent or other reasons; illness or medical issues; and job loss.
Additional to the Jericho Road mobile outreach van, KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers outreach and support for Valley residents in need.
“On the weekend we provide outreach services which is where we hand out food and provide a hot meal at our offices (4589 Adelaide St.),” KUU-US executive director, Elia Nicholson-Nave said.
Nicholson-Nave said offering a weekend meal fills a gap in services offered in the Valley. The Bread of Life Centre feeds people in need Monday through Friday.
“We have for years been going around on the streets and providing hampers but then what we did was in the last year we made it stationary on Saturdays between 5:30 and 7 p.m.,” Nicholson-Nave said.
KUU-US also runs a program called New Beginnings, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at their office, that provides free household items to individuals in the community who may need to save their money for things like food and rent.
In addition, they run a clothing program called Fresh Start that helps people receive work or general attire and hygiene products. They also have a 24-hour crisis line that provides support to callers within the Port Alberni area as well as First Nations throughout B.C.