What will have a lasting effect on homelessness? Most experts agree: A fixed address.
For the last decade or so, Surrey has pushed hard at making more housing available, both through investing capital and creating policy.
In the 1990s, the city administration at the time claimed Surrey didn’t have a homelessness problem.
By 2004, that outlook had changed, with the city drafting a social plan and hiring a senior planner to implement it.
In July 2013, the City of Surrey commissioned a Master Plan for Housing the Homeless, and Aileen Murphy, Surrey’s senior manager of social planning, says the document priorities are still valid.
The plan indicates that between 2013 and 2017, Surrey should aim to have 450 new units of transitional and supported housing. Among those should be a “low-barrier” replacement for the Gateway shelter located on 135A Street.
Low-barrier shelters don’t require people to give up drug or alcohol use in order to get a roof over their heads. Many people will go without shelter rather than give up their addictive substances.
A much bigger replacement shelter is on the way as soon as Surrey finds suitable land on the east side of King George Boulevard in North Surrey. The new facility will double the capacity to about 40 to 50 shelter beds and add 40 to 50 transitional housing beds.
There are also an estimated 180 beds in newly regulated recovery homes, along with the John Volken Society’s Newton facility, which provides about 100 beds.
And through BC Housing, 110 low-income families are receiving rent supplements so they can afford market housing.
“I think we’re meeting targets,” Murphy says, adding a new Bill Reid Memorial Shelter in Cloverdale will bring an estimated 30 shelter and transition beds to the mix next year. It will include pet-friendly spaces and a therapeutic farm.
Murphy says once people have established a permanent address, it’s beneficial for cities to look at some of the reasons the homeless became that way in the first place.
“One of the things is looking at poverty and addressing families and young people who are growing up in poverty,” Murphy says, adding there are three main influences that contribute to being housed or being homeless.
“It’s about housing, it’s about income and it’s about supports.”
Experts believe there has to be a closer examination of minimum wages and a reasonable housing supplement through welfare, which is currently $375 a month for a single person.
The 2003 study commissioned by Surrey council also urged a focus on certain groups that are over-represented in the homeless population, such as individuals with mental illness and substance abuse problems, women with children, youth and aboriginals.
“And the other is people exiting the justice system,” Murphy says.
Both youth aging out of care and others leaving jail usually have at least two strikes against them: They are low on money and people are unwilling to rent to them. Without the proper supports in place, they will be homeless.
To help address the issues that land these groups on the street, the report stresses the need for assistance from the Fraser Health Authority, the province and B.C. Housing.
Best practices show the most effective approach to solving those issues is getting people into stable housing as soon as possible.
Borrowing from a successful model in the U.S. in 2013, Canada invested $119 million in eight cities, including Vancouver, to implement a housing creation strategy.
“Housing First In Canada” notes getting people into housing is the genesis to answering the bigger problems.
“The underlying principle of Housing First is that people are more successful in moving forward with their lives if they are first housed,” the 2013 study by Canadian Homelessness Research Network states. “This is as true for homeless people and those with mental health and addiction issues as it is for anyone.”
No expert is willing to say any known approach will eradicate homelessness forever. But most agree, getting people into housing right away is the best approach.
Mayor Linda Hepner says Surrey is making great steps forward in dealing with the problem.
“All in all, I’d say we’re making progress,” Hepner says.
She notes homelessness numbers have remained stagnant in regional counts, despite Surrey’s rapid growth.
Results of the 2014 Metro Vancouver homeless count showed an overall count of 2,770 homeless in the region, up from 2,650 in 2011.
Almost all parts of Metro Vancouver – except the City of Vancouver – saw decreases of street homeless, including Surrey, which saw a decline of 35 to 40 per cent from the last count.
The number of sheltered homeless – counted in shelters, jails, hospitals, transition houses and detox centres – was down four per cent.
“We’ve achieved some stability,” says Deb Bryant, chair of the Greater Vancouver Steering Committee on Homelessness. “We have stemmed the tide of really rapid growth in homelessness.”
Hepner did say that urban camping has been a bit of a problem recently in Surrey.
“What we saw is more of a congregation of them in more of a camp situation, in two or three particular spots this year in the city,” Hepner says.
Service providers have been dealing with each case based on the unique needs of that homeless person.
As for the Housing First initiative, Hepner says senior levels of government need to provide better support for those suffering from mental health and addiction.
“But the easiest way to start addressing those is to have a roof over your head,” Hepner says, “no question.”
NO FIXED ADDRESS: Read the other stories in this Leader special report: