While other Metro Vancouver municipalities have seen their homeless populations grow, the Tri-Cities are headed in the other direction.

According to the Hope for Freedom Society, a non-profit group that offers a wide range of services to homeless people in the Tri-Cities area, the homeless population is down from 215 in 2008 to less than 50 in 2012. Managing director Rob Thiessen says that number has dropped below 40 today.

Compare that to Vancouver, where the homeless population nearly doubled from 154 in 2011 to 206 in 2012, and it's clear that something is working in the Tri-Cities

Thiessen said his program is one of the most successful in the country.

"We have the community work with the homeless, they're not being handled by trained professionals," he said. 

"They're dealing with regular people who serve them food. The contact with regular people makes some of the biggest difference."

The organization, which operates under contract with B.C. Housing, offers a wide range of services to those living on the street including outreach, a residential supportive recovery program, detox services, housing and employment services and a cold weather mat program.

"Experts have looked at what we're doing. We're unique because we have outreach workers, but we can take people all the way through the process including recovery," said Thiessen.

Big volunteer numbers 

Thiessen says the Tri-Cities has one of the highest ratios of volunteers to homeless people in North America, adding that more than 1,000 people take part in Hope For Freedom's shelter program. 

Volunteer coordinator Andrea Corrigan says that, while much of that volunteer support comes from within the churches, other community members have stepped up.

"I had to look for volunteers out in the community, at schools and in neighbourhoods," she said. 

"To my amazement and delight, every time we reached out, people would step forward and say they were willing to help."

Corrigan credits the organization and its volunteers with a level of compassion and care she has not seen in other programs. 

"Hope for Freedom considers homeless people their clients, the churches consider the homeless people who come and stay with them their guests."

Cold weather mat program threatened

Hope for Freedom's cold weather mat program started in 2007. Its location would rotate between five different area churches for one month at a time. Since it started the program has provided shelter to more than 900 people. 

But in 2012, the program reached a milestone when it was able to secure the permit to have the shelter at one location and the Grace Church in Port Coquitlam hosted the shelter for the whole season.

But this year, Port Coquitlam City Council did not renew its permit, after hearing complaints that the shelter brought with it crime and other issues. Hope For Freedom maintains that was not the case. 

The loss of the permit has forced the mat program to scramble to find five more churches to give emergency shelter to those in need. The program is currently underway with three churches on board. Managing director Rob Thiessen hopes to have the last two shelter locations on board by Dec. 10. 

"It's complicated, but we've got things back on track. I'm expecting to get the approvals," he said.

"The municipal governments are bound by bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. I don't know why it's made as complicated as it is. to me it's a social justice issue."

CBC is "In Your Neighbourhood". Join us for a live remote broadcast of CBC Radio One's 'The Early Edition' and 'On the Coast' in Coquitlam at the Poirier Sports and Leisure Complex, 633 Poirier St. CBC News Vancouver will also be on location and broadcasting live.