Column: From the Hill: Working together on homelessness

A bold approach is needed to dealing with homelessness

In this coldest time of the year, we often think of the people in our area who are homeless. Some have ended up on the streets and in rough camps because of mental health issues, addictions, or a combination of the two. Some are children fleeing abusive parents or women fleeing abusive spouses; others have become disabled. And many have ended up homeless simply because they lost their job, and then their home. In our wealthy society, all of them deserve assistance to give them shelter.

Homelessness affects communities of all sizes, from Penticton to Castlegar, Oliver to Slocan. A recent census in Penticton counted 403 people without a home. There are fewer in communities such as Trail and Grand Forks, but riverside camps are conspicuous in summer and generate a lot of local discussions. While some simply call for the camps to be disbanded, the immediate question becomes “Where will the displaced residents go?”

It has become clear that the answer to homelessness is to provide these people with homes. While it is not as simple as that, and not inexpensive, it is far less expensive than the supports needed for a truly homeless population, including soup kitchens, food banks, hospital care, bylaw enforcement and other policing.

There are many groups that have mandates to help the homeless, including all levels of government, health care, law enforcement and a myriad of service agencies. Their efforts are most successful when they really work together to develop housing projects that help segments of the homeless population, and when they can act efficiently by knowing which agency can best help that individual in any situation.

Penticton has become a model case for this co-operative, integrated approach. An initiative called 100 Homes has brought together more than a dozen groups with a clear vision to house the homeless. And their approach has been very successful — they’ve already exceeded their goal of 100 homes, having produced 133 units as of last July. They’re now in the process of setting new goals with a view to housing all of the 400 people in need in Penticton. One of the valuable lessons that 100 Homes has learned in the past months is that funding is needed for support services as well as the housing units themselves. Given both social support and a roof over their heads, many homeless people can quickly return to normal lives.

Grand Forks is a special case, in that it already had a small homeless population before the town was flooded last spring. Now the Boundary Flood Recovery Team and others are trying to ensure that every resident has a roof over their heads for the winter at least. Dealing with government bureaucracy has been challenging, as it often is, especially with the new provincial Disaster Recovery Branch that became overwhelmed with flood and fire victims as soon as it was formed early in 2018.

But everywhere I go in the riding I find groups that are doing amazing work with homeless and other disadvantaged people. In Trail, Career Development Services has a Getting to Home program that provides critical support for individuals who need to find a home.

In Castlegar there is Chrissy’s Place, named in honour of Chrissy Archibald, a young woman who had dedicated her life to helping the homeless before being killed in a terrorist incident in London. While Chrissy’s Place doesn’t focus on just the homeless, it does provide a wide range of supports for people in need through the Castlegar and District Community Services Society.

Homelessness, of course, is just a part of the ongoing housing crisis across Canada. The federal government is supplying some of the funding for many of these projects through the National Housing Strategy, but most of those funds will not be spent for years to come. We need bold action now to tackle this problem.

Richard Cannings is a member of the NDP and the South Okanagan-West Kootenay riding MP. Cannings is also the critic for post-secondary education and critic for natural resources.

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