Rebuild the homeless’ trust in society: outreach worker

 

The reintegration of the homeless into society may involve more than just providing affordable housing — trust must be rebuilt first, a seasoned outreach worker said.

A renovated historic manor house has recently opened on the west side of the Vancouver-Burnaby boundary on Adanac Street with 56 beds for the homeless struggling with mental illnesses, according to a City of Vancouver press release.

“It’s a lot more than just housing them,” said Jody Koinoff, an outreach worker with Lookout Emergency Aid Society and had located housing for those living in tent cities in Burnaby’s green spaces such as Central Park.

“They don’t know how to communicate with people,” she said. “Because of living like that for many years, they have to relearn everything all over again…that requires a lot of time and effort.”

Mental illness developed from street life

Koinoff explained that those who are homeless can develop mental illnesses by living on the street.

“Even if they aren’t [mentally ill before], just being homeless causes [post-traumatic stress disorder],” she said. “They get very paranoid and very sensitive to sounds, and very standoffish and emotional.”

Some of the homeless are hermits, refusing help and staying away from society, Koinoff said.

Isolation from society

“[For] a lot of them, bad stuff had happened and they just shut out the world and they just want to be left alone,” she said.

Mocha serves as an icebreaker for outreach worker Jody Koinoff's work with the reticent homeless. Photo: Vivian Chui
Mocha serves as an icebreaker for outreach worker Jody Koinoff’s work with the reticent homeless. Photo: Vivian Chui

She brings her dog Mocha to assist with outreach work and establish connections with the homeless.

“When Mocha runs in there and wags her little tail, they love it ‘cause she gives them affection and a lot of them don’t get affection in years,” Koinoff said. “That’s a great icebreaker and I build relationships from there.”

Difficult to access health care

Wanda Mulholland, community development coordinator from Burnaby Housing and Homelessness Task Force, said the homeless tend to not feel welcome at clinics when seeking health care and thus choose to seek help in the emergency room instead.

“People have difficulty getting to medical appointments and clinics,” Mulholland added, as the homeless tends to stick to areas along SkyTrain routes.

Mulholland explained that Vancouver’s regular rainforest climate did not help either, as rain dampened those who may not be able to seek shelter. While others who have the option to get changed into a fresh set of dry clothing, the homeless may be stuck with the same wet shoes, she said.

She listed examples where damp skin broke down in shoes and the toes eventually had to be amputated.

Burnaby currently has two emergency weather response shelters and no year-round homeless shelters, according to BC Housing’s website.

Difficult to access shelters

“The problem with the Burnaby [one] is, it’s hard to get to for many people, ‘cause most of the homeless hang around where the SkyTrain is available,” said Laurel Nagem, program coordinator at the Russell Residence and Shelter in New Westminster. “Most people don’t want to make the trip.”

She had also managed the extreme response weather shelter at the Burnaby Alliance Church for the last two years.

“We don’t require ID or anything. People come in, they usually just give their first name,” said Nagem. “We refer them to services, if they want help.”

Services available, individuals reticent

“People won’t tell you nothing about themselves,” said Nagem. “They just want a warm place to sleep.”

“We can’t force anybody, of course if it’s an emergency we’ll always call 9-1-1 or an ambulance, at least have them checked out,” said Nagem. “It’s up to them whether they’ll accept.”

Norm DeVos, elder at the Burnaby Alliance Church, is the point of contact when the church opened its doors for the homeless as an extreme weather response shelter.

“Some of them are clearly under the influence of alcohol or something,” said DeVos. “I don’t think there’s a lot of disruption in terms of issues that come out of that…if they’re quiet, then it’s not a problem.”

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