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‘Speed dating’ all-candidates meeting in Surrey zeroes in on homelessness and housing

Candidates mingle with residents at tables with various topics, in 10-minute intervals

There are so many political hopefuls in the Surrey election this year, the first all-candidates meeting opted for a “speed dating” format.

Hosted by the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Task Force, the evening’s theme naturally centred around issues of homelessness and housing affordability in the city.

Things kicked off at 6 p.m. at City Centre Library, with organizers expecting all of the election parties to have a presence.

Organizer and host Jonquil Hallgate said the event is not focusing on “what people have or haven’t done in the past, we want to know going forward, how are we going to get on top of the issue in the future.”

As per the format, candidates rotated around the room to different tables with various themes, said Hallgate.

“So topics could include affordable housing, transportation, street homelessness. Candidates will be split up so they’re not with one of their own, and they’ll go around from one table to the next, for 10 minutes or so,” Hallgate added.

The first table the Now-Leader listened in on was about the location of shelters, and how to quickly establish a solution for the homeless.

Surrey First council candidate and incumbent councillor Mike Starchuk spoke about a Surrey-based company that creates modular housing that he’d like to see utilized for these projects.

“We’re talking legos,” Starchuk remarked, noting he’s been working with the company since last October and has encouraged the provincial government to find out how to involve the company to build a solution.

Starchuk said the city’s contributions to these projects should be the land.

“These people within 90 days can be in production and within 120 days, start constructing it,” he added, highlighting their ability to “start social housing right away.”

Proudly Surrey council candidate Felix Kongyuy liked that idea.

For his part, Kongyuy called for the city to “incentivize” developers to build affordable housing.

“I’m looking more or less for a structure where you have a mix of people who are middle-income together with low-income living in the same space so people don’t feel like they’re being discriminated against or pushed out. But the city has to set to agenda, set the environment.”

Paul Rusan, running for council with the People First Surrey slate, said “there’s no fast way to fix this problem,” referring to housing for the homeless, noting it takes three years to build a home.

“Government must intervene more,” said Rusan. “I think a new facility should be government-owned. If you make it private, it’s going to become a business sooner or later.”

These three candidates also spoke about the Guildford shelter along 104th Avenue next to the Superstore.

Kongyuy said that location was successful but said the city could have consulted with the community more.

“In the end, in Guildford, it worked out fine,” said Kongyuy. “People don’t even know there’s something existing there. But going to people with more information about projects like that will help. I didn’t see enough public consultation.”

Kongyuy said he’d like to see “direct medical support in-house,” in future facilities, and called for accessible transportation nearby.

Starchuk, too, saw that project as a success despite initial opposition.

“The smaller community that was in the Guildford area was worried about how that was going to interact with the young athletes and kids that were in the park. When you talk about location, location, location, you have to talk about the facility,” said Starchuk, noting the building was renovated to give residents of the project their space, indoors and out, but also to minimize impact on the neighbourhood.

“You didn’t have the direct interface with the direct community. You dispelled the myth right away,” he added.

Rusan said it’s “very important to consider what’s going to be near these locations. People need to have access to social services, to the library, to the gym, maybe to doctors. And also the neighbourhood, it’s very important to ask the opinions of the neighbours. If they will be rejected by the neighbours then we are in the same spot as before.”

See also: A list of all-candidates meetings in Surrey

See also: SURREY ELECTION: 8 running for mayor, 48 council hopefuls, 30 trustee candidates

At the same table, but later in the night, a handful of candidates were asked to comment on how to address community resistance to facilities for the homeless.

John Gibeau, running for council with Integrity Now, said he wants to see “purpose-built housing” for the homeless, and said they should “be located all over Surrey, and all town centres with the community’s participation…. No community is 100 per cent going to give its approval.”

If elected, Gibeau vowed to immediately focus on getting social housing built “with a component of market housing in it so it sustains itself at the same time.”

Surrey First Councillor Vera LeFranc was sitting with Gibeau, when the 60-unit supportive housing project in Cloverdale arose in conversation - a proposal that was opposed by many in the community and as a result, BC Housing withdrew its application.

LeFranc said she had hoped to see all the proposed locations - not just the one site that was made public in Cloverdale - for the 240 permanent homes for the homeless proposed to replace the 160 temporary modular units in Whalley set up this summer.

LeFranc said it would be best to roll out all proposed locales throughout the city, so one community doesn’t feel it’s being singled out.

She expressed her pride that the city housed 220 people off of 135A Street in three days this summer, and that the city brought forward “over 600 units of housing over the last four years.”

Safe Surrey Coalition council candidate and longtime community advocate Doug Elford expressed his concern about “rentovictions.”

Elford said his son suffered such a fate this summer.

“The landlord knew he could get double the rent, he was living in a basement suite. He had a lease that was a good deal, the landlord realized he couldn’t kick him out by law. They paid him out, two months rent, here’s your damage deposit, have a nice life,” said Elford. “He ended up on my couch for two months. He’s not technically homeless but he would’ve been if somebody hadn’t accommodated him.”

Elford said if elected, he’d “look at diving into rental zoning legislation that’s come up, and how we could work with that. That’s something I’d be focusing on right away.”

He added he would also “get on the phone and call the NDP and say, ‘Where’s our money?’”

Elford’s running mate Brenda Locke said if elected, she would immediately check on the “short term” leases of the temporary modular units for the homeless in Whalley.

“I want to make sure that housing is secured for a while,” said Locke, adding that the homeless “get lost in the equation” in terms of planning a solution for their plight.

Locke also called for an increase to Surrey’s social planning staff, which she said sits at “1.5” compared to Vancouver’s 16.

“It’s not good enough for this city,” she stated.

Proudly Surrey council hopeful Adam MacGillivray said if elected, one of the first things he’d do is “get on the phone with (Health Minister) Adrian Dix” and demand Surrey and Fraser Health receive the same funding Vancouver does for addictions and health services for the homeless.

“Currently, we’re on our own,” said MacGillivray. “We don’t get that extra funding. I’d be on the phone drumming up that support.”

Integrity Now council hopeful Avi Dhaliwal said he wants to see supports for children with mental health issues, such as ADHD or anxiety, “so they don’t find themselves on the street down the road.”

Dhaliwal says the issues “start, grow, and they develop, and worsen” and “we need to tackle this at a grassroots level.”

“We need to start with youth struggling with mental health issues so they have the support and the framework around them so they don’t find themselves homeless years down the road,” he stressed.

Independent council candidate Neera Aghnihotri said if she had a magic wand, she would create acceptance and understanding of homeless people.

“We need to accept them. They’re there because of their circumstances,” she said. “Instead of shunning them aside and making our personal judgments, I think we need to step into this and say, ‘How do we help you?’”

Another independent, Kashmir Besla, echoed that, suggesting many don’t understand who homeless people are.

“Most people are a pay cheque away from being homeless themselves,” said Besla. “Whether you have a good job, or you are a senior, or you are a new immigrant, anyone can end up being homeless. The perception is wrong as to who that is. I think there’s this idea of people who are drug addicted, on a crime spree, that are the homeless and that isn’t necessarily true.”

Besla notes she has worked as a registered clinical counsellor for 20 years and sees the trouble youth can get into as a result of not having a safe place to go at night.

“We need to look at causes, we need to look at prevention,” said Besla.

Roslyn Cassells, running under the GreenVote banner, said elected or not she will “fight for social and ecological justice.”

Cassells vowed she would push for “structural change in the City of Surrey, and to do that we need to end homelessness, not only for people but for animals.”

Deanna Welters, running for council with Progressive Sustainable Surrey, said transportation is a key issue to address when it comes to homelessness and housing.

“I feel that mobility should become an essential service, and a basic necessity along with education, health care and housing,” Welters remarked.

She called for a “high functioning” transit system, saying the City of Surrey wasted $24 million toward supporting its planned light rail system. Welters, instead, called for reactivation of the interurban rail.

Bernie Sheppard, who is running for council with the Independent Surrey Voters Association, said if elected he’d “talk to the feds and the province and get them to bring forward the money they’ve promised as fast as possible to build our way out of this. Not only for people to buy homes, but rent as well.”

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