‘Abbotsford’s living room’ closing at the end of September

The Cabin, a daytime space for Abbotsford's homeless community, will be shutting its doors after council decided to cut its grant period short.

By Grace Kennedy | August 30, 2022 |5:00 am

In just over one month, Abbotsford’s street community will have one less safe place to spend their time.

The Cabin, a drop-in daytime centre for people who have no homes, will be shutting its doors at the end of September.

Abbotsford council made the decision to not extend the program’s grant period until December during a closed-door meeting. For Megan Capp, manager of social justice, seniors, and housing at Archway Community Services, the decision was a disappointing one.

“I feel like we are getting further away from the recognition that [housing] is a fundamental right. This is a need that everyone deserves to have access to. We have turned it into something that has been politicized,” she said.

“It’s easy for us to take that approach with things as we go back to our homes and our families and our comfortable lives,” Capp added. “But that perspective does a lot of harm to those that are still on the streets.”

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Archway Community Services is the main organization responsible for managing The Cabin, which opened in the fall of last year. The Cabin started as “Abbotsford’s living room,” offering meals, washrooms, a mobile shower, and a safe space to relax for people living on the street. The city and advocates had talked about the need for a drop-in centre many times over the years.

The Cabin opened on Nov. 16, 2021, after receiving $1.5 million in funding from the Union of BC Municipalities. The money was, Capp said, “a dream.” (Part of the grant also funded a temporary 15-bed extreme weather shelter.) But getting the centre set up was not without its challenges.

The grant was intended to run the facility for a year, starting in August 2021. But Archway wasn’t able to secure a space in time.

Many landlords didn’t want to rent their properties to an organization that would turn the building into a centre for people without homes. When Archway eventually secured the former Abbotsford Tourism building on Delair Road two months later, it wasn’t the organization’s first choice. But at least the program could start.

The Cabin was managed by Archway, but also had the enthusiastic support of five other organizations: 5 and 2 Ministries, Matsqui-Abbotsford Impact Society, Drug War Survivors, CEDAR Outreach, and the Abbotsford Restorative Justice and Advocacy Association. All brought their own programs and support to the centre—and also their own small communities.

“Working with such a broad range of partners allowed us access and trusting relationships to people who likely would have fallen through the cracks,” Capp said, adding that many people would have been less likely to use the space if it had been run by just one organization.

The Cabin provided food, daytime shelter, and a space for weekly activities like bingo nights and barbecues. It also helped connect people to housing and health services, and a tent on-site provided a safe space to use drugs with naloxone and support nearby.

On average, 56 people used the facility each day, with around 100 coming in on particularly hot or cold days.

Archway didn’t sugarcoat the friction that happened as a result of The Cabin starting up in Abbotsford. In the organization’s press release about the centre’s closure, it said that The Cabin “stirred controversy” in the community and had been subject to complaints about vandalism and disruption.

But, the release also went on to say that staff also worked hard to to minimize the impact on neighbours, and included a quote from Abbotsford Police inspector Kevin Murray, who said that The Cabin was an “integral part of how we combat homelessness, and how we help our most marginalized and victimized citizens survive.” Archway’s manager of communications, Kelly Neufeld, later said that several of the businesses nearby—including two local coffee shops—were saddened by the decision to close The Cabin.

Its closure, Capp said, will be a significant loss to Abbotsford’s homeless community.

In 2020, the FVRD homeless count identified 333 Abbotsford residents without homes. The homeless population had skyrocketed since 2011, reaching its highest point since counts began in 2004.

Daytime shelters focus on services and community, and use personal connections to help people become more comfortable with accessing things like supportive housing. Although the city has 166 overnight shelters—which are typically at capacity—daytime shelters fill a very different need.

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

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

In July of this year—the original time when The Cabin was set to run out of funding—Archway asked the City of Abbotsford to ask UBCM for an extension on the grant money until Nov. 30. Because the centre hadn’t opened until the fall, they hadn’t used all the funds yet; they just needed permission to keep the centre operational.

Instead, council told staff to request an extension until Sept. 30. The rationale was that closing the centre before the start of the extreme weather season made more sense. In an email to The Current, the city also said that it would give Archway time to find alternate funding sources.

Capp was not pleased with the idea that Archway needed to find more funding. There was enough money to go until Nov. 30, she said. Even if they did get additional funds, she added, implementing another centre like The Cabin would be “very complex.”

“Trying to find space where we can actually implement this programming is incredibly challenging, even when we have the funds,” she said. “There’s appetite for it. But there are also reservations that there are a lot of factors that impact our ability to do this work—much, much broader than funding.”

The Cabin will officially close its doors at the end of September. The remaining grant funds will be returned to UBCM. And the people who use its services will need to find somewhere else to go.

Where, exactly, is unclear.

Abbotsford does have one other daytime drop-in centre: PARC, run by the Phoenix Society on South Fraser Way. Another wellness centre is opening in Chilliwack, although exactly when and where it will open is undecided.

Although having these other options is extremely valuable, Capp said it might not help the people who will be impacted by the closure of The Cabin.

“Even when people are living unsheltered, there is a deep sense of community and there are deep bonds that are formed during the time that they’re living on the street,” she said.

The street community has its own neighbourhoods, and people from one neighbourhood are unlikely to mix with people in another. Although Capp said she will be referring people to Phoenix’s PARC program, it’s likely they won’t want to go. It’s even less likely people will be willing to travel to Chilliwack, if they can get there at all.

“Especially for women, where there is a fear of constant victimization, some pretty significant bonds develop between those living on the street and others living on the street who are supporting them,” Capp said. “It’s not very realistic to me to expect people to move from one community to another.”

In its last month, The Cabin will continue to help visitors connect with services in their area. Archway will also work to help the 35 peer support workers—people working at The Cabin who are also homeless or precariously housed—find other employment. (Capp isn’t optimistic about how successful those efforts will be: peer support is an extremely specialized skill set, and although other organizations in the area do hire for that work, positions are limited.)

Capp and others at The Cabin will also be working to make sure visitors know that even when the physical space is gone, the support won’t be.

“Just because The Cabin as a space is closing doesn’t mean their connection to us, or the level of advocacy we are going to be continuing, is going to diminish,” she said. “We’re going to continue the work. And we’re working really hard to make sure that people understand that.”

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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