ELECTION 2015: Surrey’s problem with poverty

Advocate says sparsely attended all-candidates debate exemplifies the challenge of keeping people off the streets in Surrey

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SURREY — “What will you do for Paula?”

Paula is a woman living on the streets of Whalley. Dave Brown knows her well.

“I talk to her every day,” said Brown, a community and services manager for Lookout Emergency Aid Society that runs the Gateway Emergency Shelter.

“The part that really scares me now is we’ve historically seen 80 per cent male, 20 per cent female. I’m seeing so many women now on the street that are stuck and are street entrenched… There’s also more younger people than ever before.”

An all-candidates meeting held at SFU Surrey Tuesday aimed to address the complex issue encapsulated in two simple questions: If elected, what will you do for people already in the trenches of homelessness, and what will you do to keep others from falling down the slippery slope?

A modest crowd turned out to SFU Surrey Tuesday night to hear Surrey’s federal candidates talk about their ideas and commitments on the issue.

What they witnessed, organizers say, was the Conservative candidates’ apparent disregard in the matter, if their lack of response to the event’s invitation is any indication.

All the candidates running in Surrey were invited and five turned out – four NDP candidates, one Liberal and not a single Tory.

This didn’t sit well with the forum’s moderator, Jonquil Hallgate.

“We aren’t doing enough,” said Hallgate, director of Surrey Urban Mission. “And why? I think part of it is there’s less value placed on the people we serve because by-and-large they don’t have a voice and they don’t tend to vote.”

HOUSING FIRST

Hallgate said the federal government’s shift to a Housing First strategy a few years ago precludes many from accessing services.

“This houses chronic and episodically homeless people… but to help seniors or moms with kids or people who’ve lost their job and can’t manage until EI kicks in, where there were once supports to help people, there are no supports in place,” she said. “For every person we house, we have one or two or three more people who become unhoused.”

Hallgate argues the federal government’s focus needs to also be on preventing homelessness.

James Musgrave with Pacific Community Resources Society said the government’s “very specific definition” prohibits almost all of the youth they help from accessing Housing First funding. He’d like to see the definition rewritten to be more inclusive of youth and those who are at risk of becoming homeless. “But prevention isn’t very sexy when you’re thinking about politics,” Musgrave said. “It’s hard to say we prevented something.”

HOMELESSNESS FUND

At Tuesday’s debate, Coun. Vera LeFranc, who works with the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society, pointed out that federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy funding has not been increased since 1999.

“It’s $8.2 million now, it was $8.2 million then. There’s 22 municipalities that have to share that,” she said.

LeFranc, who pointed out there are roughly 2,000 homeless people in Surrey, said the government must stop downloading the issue and costs to municipal governments.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Coun. Judy Villeneuve, co-chair of the Surrey Poverty Reduction Coalition, said incentives for building and rebuilding rental housing are vital.

“It’s really key,” she said, noting new rental housing hasn’t been built since the 1990s. “The federal government did have, and was offering, tax credits to developers to build housing. We need to get back to that… I personally believe if they had not chopped the program they did, we would not be seeing the kind of homelessness we’re seeing today.”

POVERTY PLAN

Surrey’s Poverty Reduction Plan calls for the federal government to develop a national housing strategy; funding to increase the supply of non-market and social housing; introduce tax changes to stimulate development of purpose-built rental housing; sustain and enhance housing stability strategies such as the Surrey Rent Bank;  make improvements to EI and child and family benefits; and invest in a child care program.

Better rental assistance programs are desperately needed, according to Villeneuve. While there are rental supplement programs, she said they’re “very limited.”

Tax credits for low-income families are an easy way for the government to bring many families and seniors above the poverty line, she continued.

Villeneuve and the city have been vocal in calling for the transportation loans those refugees arrive with to be axed, saying it cripples newcomers who are overwhelmed by the debt.

From 2010 to 2012, Surrey housed 26 per cent – or 555 – of B.C.’s government-assisted refugees.

“They’re the poorest of the poor,” Villeneuve said. “The average transportation loan is $10,000 to $15,000… (Eliminating it) is such a small impact at the federal level and it’s such a huge thing for people in that situation.”

David Young, executive director of Sources, says even as someone working in the field, the rates of child poverty shock him.

A report from the Surrey Poverty Coalition says there are 20,000 children and youth living in poverty in Surrey – more than anywhere else in the province.

“We need leadership nationally on this issue,” said Young.

“There’s a whole host of things that collectively we can and should be doing  – whether that’s child care, police, enhanced benefits for family, a housing strategy, labour market strategies – we need a co-ordinated effort to deal with it.”

WHAT THE CANDIDATES SAID

So, who did show up to Tuesday’s all-candidates meeting at SFU?

From the NDP was Jasbir Sandhu (Surrey Centre), Jinny Sims (Surrey-Newton), Gary Begg (Fleetwood-Port Kells) and Rebecca Smith (Cloverdale-Langley City). The lone Liberal candidate was Randeep Sarai, running in Surrey Centre.

Sarai was asked how he would focus on prevention and stem the tide of entering homelessness.

“The Liberals are committed to raising those below the middle class to the middle class, and raising the incomes of those that are already in the middle class so they can enjoy a standard of living. That’s our commitment.”

Sarai said his party has committed to investing $125 billion into infrastructure – in transportation, social and environmental – to make up for lack of spending in the past.

He said affordable housing is “top on the priority list” for his party. “There will be $20 billion in social infrastructure invested over the next 10 years and that will be front-end loaded…. We will build housing units immediately.”

The Liberal platform includes tax incentives for developers and landlords. They also promise to let people dip into RRSPs tax-free for more than just first-time home purchases.

Sims (NDP) said in government, it’s not that money isn’t available, it’s about priorities.

“I would first of all push for a national strategy.”

Sandhu (NDP) said “we will bring in a national affordable housing act that will ensure and secure adequate and accessible and affordable housing. We will renew co-operative housing operating agreements that are set to expire and invest over $2 billion in co-ops and social housing by 2020.”

NDP promises 10,000 new affordable housing units over a decade by offering tax incentives.

The NDP promises a national child care program that would see a million spaces and would cap the fee at $15 a day. They have also committed to raising the federal minimum wage to $15. Sims said the country needs real targets for reducing poverty and pledges to fight for one.

Sandhu noted, “the program we’re offering, the $2.7 billion, would provide dedicated funding for homelessness.”

While the Tories were absent, their website says they plan to focus on increasing home ownership, adding more than 700,000 homeowners by 2020.

amy.reid@thenownewspaper.com

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