Saturday, March 24, 2007

B.C.'s homeless strategy is all talk and little action
March 23, 2007

We’ll leave it to Arn Van Iersel to weigh in with the lowdown on how things are going with the province’s three-year-old homelessness initiative.
The acting auditor general is going to be reviewing the initiative to see whether it has been effective. But if Victoria’s downtown in that period is any measure, I’d have to guess the news from Van Iersel won’t be good.
It won’t be all bad, of course. Almost 1,300 units of subsidized and supported housing have been given the go-ahead since the launch of the 2004 strategy. And at least Port Alberni has a mental- health outreach worker, as promised to B.C. communities under the initiative but so far in place in barely a handful of towns.
Virtually any kind of affordable-housing initiative is a blessing in these unsettling times, marked at one end by the grim realities of nearly 800 people living on our streets, and at the other by sky-high housing prices that squeeze the rental market.
In our region, almost 1,200 people are homeless or very close to it. Thousands more are scratching by in sub-par housing, at least until the health authorities or the landlord show up to shut the place down.
So 1,300 units of affordable housing province-wide may be laudable, but it barely scratches the surface. Rent top-ups to working families earning less than $20,000 a year are great too, but doesn’t do a thing for people at the very bottom.
I’ve been close to the street scene through my non-profit work for the entire three years that there has been a homelessness initiative. All I’ve seen is worsening problems.
You know those gloomy media stories about homelessness and addiction that you’d rather not read because they bum you out? I’m hear to tell you that they’ve got nothing on the real thing. The growing violence, the increase in street prostitution, the infections and overdoses and assorted daily tragedies of life on the streets - it’s all unbearably sad, and all the more so because it’s so completely unnecessary.
Can we live with knowing that pregnant women are living on our streets? That they give birth to embattled babies whose own young lives are then begun in foster homes and state care?
Probably not, at least in theory. In reality, a dozen or more such pregnant women are living on our downtown streets at any given time. Their children know disadvantage and poverty before they’re ever born, and many start out their tiny lives fighting the drugs and alcohol that ravaged them prenatally.
The government apparently believes that between a quarter and a third of people on our streets are mentally ill. I think they’d be wise to check those figures. Fortunately, it won’t take an expensive study or a royal commission or anything like that. A few hours hanging around the sidewalk outside Streetlink ought to do it.
Once upon a time, when B.C.’s big institutions closed down and disgorged people onto the streets, the solution might have been to get people some mental-health services and a cheap apartment.
But people with mental illnesses have been abandoned to the streets for too long now. They’ve got a way more complex set of problems, of which mental illness is only one. It’s going to take way more than 1,300 housing units and a handful of outreach workers to do something meaningful about that.
I spoke to a group of Grade 9-10 Parkland students a couple weeks ago about street issues, and it devastated me to realize that the region’s current street problems are seen as the norm among kids that age in our region. They’ve known nothing different.
I tried to tell them about how it had been in the “old days” - just 15 years ago, in fact, when Open Door clients comprised a small enough number that they fit comfortably in tiny digs above what is now the Metro Theatre.
These days, hundreds of people use the Open Door (now renamed Our Place). The little group of down-and-out men who made up the bulk of the region’s homeless population has transformed into a sprawling, brawling sub-class of almost 800 men, women and children, and hundreds more if you include the off-and-on homeless in the tally.
As tough as the challenges are due to our ongoing failure to act, the miseries of the street are within our capability to fix. We just need to solve the problem for what it is, and hopefully before it gets any bigger. If we applied even half the focus to addressing homelessness that we’re giving to staging the 2010 Olympics, we’d be operating at warp speed compared to the glacial pace of our actual progress.
Three years into B.C.’s homelessness initiative, we’ve gotten off to the smallest of starts. More, please - and very, very soon.

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