COLUMN: More rental housing is key

There has not been a concerted community-wide effort to deal with the problem of homelessness.

A series of stories published in The Surrey-North Delta Leader on Friday, Feb. 26 (read them online at surreyleader.com) is called “No Fixed Address.” It sheds some welcome light on a challenge which Surrey and many other cities across North America are struggling with.

Most importantly, it features stories and photos of individuals who are or have been homeless. These allow readers to understand these individuals as people who face real challenges. The stories also illustrate the road which leads to homelessness, and the road out of it, is complex.

As is ever the case with human beings, each person’s set of circumstances is unique. And solutions to the problems for each individual are also unique, which is one of the reasons homelessness remains so intractable.

Surrey’s response to homelessness has been somewhere in the middle of the pack when compared to other B.C. communities. The city recognized fairly early, prodded by councillors like Dianne Watts (before she was elected mayor) and Judy Villeneuve, that the problem was real and growing.

The city has not, for the most part, got in the way of the numerous agencies and charities which have done much of the heavy lifting in responding to the needs of the homeless. Rather, it has encouraged them to help. Their efforts have been significant.

However, there has not been a concerted community-wide effort to deal with the problem, even though there are homeless people in all parts of Surrey – including South Surrey, which is the wealthiest area of the city. Roy and Darlene, featured in the series, lived in the bush near 32 Avenue and King George Boulevard for 13 years until the lot was developed.

Most of the efforts to assist those without homes have been concentrated in Whalley, where the problem is perhaps most acute. There has been significant assistance offered in Newton and Cloverdale as well, and a modest amount in South Surrey.

While there are 60 to 80 emergency shelter beds and more available during the winter months, this is not nearly enough. There has been no effort to build a community-wide homeless shelter. This probably makes sense, given Surrey’s large population and sprawling nature. There are homeless people in many parts of the city.

Nonetheless, if there was a more intense community focus on this problem, led by city council, it is possible that there would be more provincial assistance made available.

Many communities as diverse as Langley, Kelowna and Vancouver have given the problem a much higher profile. Through some successful efforts to work together and form community coalitions, they have convinced the provincial government to fund various initiatives to combat homelessness.

It could be argued that these efforts have only amounted to a drop in the bucket. That isn’t fair to the province and various cities involved, as they have put a lot of money and political capital into the issue. Housing Minister Rich Coleman in particular has made available, again and again, funds for shelters, long-term housing, support workers and many other services.

But the problem remains a challenge and one that is almost constantly changing.

Coun. Vera LeFranc, who was first elected to Surrey council in 2014, has been a longtime advocate for strategies to combat homelessness in Surrey. Both she and Villeneuve have been consistent in their commitment to this issue for years.

Will they be able to significantly reduce the number of homeless people in Surrey and will they be able to obtain much-needed housing and support for those who are caught up in the homelessness tangle? Time will tell. Broad support from the community will ensure more is done.

At the same time, one key element of reducing homelessness, as the series of stories points out, is a good supply of affordable rental housing. That is something that Surrey needs to devote much more attention to.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.

 

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