The Light Magazine interviewed Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz as part of its Snapshots of Faith series. I re-posted the bulk of the feature on Chilliwack last month, but saved this interview to run on its own.
How would you describe the impact that the faith communities have on Chilliwack?
As we deal with social challenges I do get asked, ‘What are the churches doing?’
If you include Christian ministries, such as the Salvation Army, Ruth & Naomi’s Mission and the Cyrus Centre, along with each church’s own ministries, the ‘church’ is doing an amazing job in Chilliwack!
Jim and I visit many different churches and we get a broad view of ‘the church.’
In addition to directly helping people who are homeless, many churches have ministries that prevent homelessness, either directly or indirectly. With nearly half of all Canadians living pay cheque to pay cheque, many churches provide much-needed programs and services to help make ends meet. Daycare, youth groups and providing support for single parents all make a positive impact on our community.
Social connectivity is another part of church that impacts our community. We are finding that social connectivity is diminishing from communities, leaving many people feeling isolated. We often hear of seniors, for example, who become isolated and lonely as friends pass away. When a church learns that this is happening, the vast majority of them respond with options to help reconnect that individual to the community of the church.”
Chilliwack stands out from other Lower Mainland cities as seeing the greatest increase of homelessness according the recent count. What is the council’s thinking as to why? Plus will Chilliwack get some of the 2,000 portable housing units planned for by the NDP?
It is shocking. In the 2014 homelessness count we had 73 and three years later it’s 221. That’s a 203 percent increase. Per capita, this is actually similar to Vancouver, but as a big city they have more supports.
We sometimes hear people speculate that many homeless people are new to Chilliwack, but a recent study found that 62.2 percent of homeless people have actually lived in Chilliwack six years or longer. These are members of our community who need help and support.
Last June, city council adopted an extensive Chilliwack Homelessness Action Plan. It was created in collaboration with service providers and people who are actively working in the area of homelessness.
As we look for housing options, we know that it’s important to start with emergency shelters. Currently there are 46 emergency shelter beds available at the Salvation Army and eight youth beds at Cyrus Centre. With 211 people identified as homeless in our community, we need more beds.
We’ve advocated to the province for more beds and services in Chilliwack and will soon see the positive results of that work. The Salvation Army will be opening a new modular shelter in the New Year, providing some additional emergency shelter beds.
At the same time, we are looking at the issue of affordable housing. We have supported Mamele’awt Qweesome & To’o Housing Society’s grant application through the federal Homeless Prevention Strategy and they are working on building 80 units. We have also supported Ruth and Naomi’s Mission, which is building affordable housing for families that will feature 36 units.
Largely because of unaffordable housing in Metro Vancouver people are moving to the Valley and driving in, even from Chilliwack. The six lane improvement (slated to be completed by winter 2022) seems utterly inadequate – with current daily traffic jams now just past Abby. What solutions do you see for this?
It is inadequate. Chilliwack’s population is pushing 90,000 residents and we’re growing. We added 350 new kids to our schools last year. Couple that with our outdoor beauty and the lowest property taxes in the Lower Mainland (both business and residential) and we know we will continue to grow.
At our last Council meeting, we discussed the freeway and the need for it to be widened sooner than planned. The Township of Langley requested that we send a letter to the Honourable Claire Trevena, Minister of Transportation, and the Lower Mainland Local Government Association in support of their request for widening and expansion projects of the highway from 216 Street to 264 Street. Council is writing that letter, but will add to it that the widening of the highway into the Fraser Valley must be expedited.
For now, the BC Transit #66 express route between Chilliwack, Abbotsford and Langley has proven popular and affordable ($5 and under), and it will likely be expanded in the future.
As a municipality, we are also working to attract more jobs to Chilliwack. We want our residents to enjoy a good work life balance that comes from working close to home. Opportunities like the new Molson Coors brewery, or the recent expansion of Roger’s Foods Mill, will provide the chance for more residents to work close to home and avoid commuting along the freeway.
How could Christians pray for you in your challenging role?
I find it humbling that people do pray for me. I have people approach me on the street to tell me that they are praying for me. How to pray? Well certainly for wisdom and discernment, strength also. Plus balancing family life with the challenges of public life.
Even with people I may strongly disagree with, I want to be gracious and respectful. We are to be ‘Wise as serpents, harmless as doves’ and ‘always ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within us.’
Lloyd Mackey interviewed Sharon Gaetz for the December 2008 issue of BC Christian News, just after her election as mayor for the first time. She spoke about her history in Chilliwack, including co-pastoring with her husband Jim at Glad Tidings Church and Southside Church.