Part 5: Changes needed to address Greater Victoria poverty

Two significant changes are needed to help solve poverty in the region and across the country, says Andrew Wynn-Williams, executive director of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.

“First, income assistance rates need to be increased to somewhat match the cost of living,” he said, noting a subsidized housing allowance of $375 a month in a city where a bachelor apartment rents for no less than $700 is inadequate.

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“Also, there is a major lack of federal government investment in social housing in this country. … This is an election year coming up and it should be a major issue that is pushed,” Wynn-Williams said.

Restrictive public policy and regional issues — including low assistance rates, child-support clawbacks and the costly housing market — help drive people into homelessness, advocates said. But they also pointed to a few examples of progress.

Read the Hidden Poverty series

One program continually lauded by advocates and struggling families is the Burnside Gorge family self-sufficiency program. For up to two years, parents learn financial skills and planning and how to cope if their income or family situation has changed.

“I was not only able to dig myself out of debt but to truly learn how live within my means,” said Pamela Mae, a single mother who said the program was key to helping her thrive after a divorce.

Wynn-Williams noted the provincial Homeless Prevention Program, announced in October, was a positive step. The program invests $62.5 million over five years to bring rent supplements and support services to at-risk groups, including youth transitioning out of foster care and women who have experienced violence or are at risk of violence. It allows Victoria to add 100 more spaces of affordable housing in the city.

“They’re focusing on people at-risk, which is what we’ve been saying needs to be done,” he said.

Advocacy organizations like the Victoria Women’s Transition House can offer emergency shelter and support for short periods of time.

But one of the challenges the organization faces is how to help women and their children transition into a new, better life after the crisis. In a city with a 1.5 per cent rental vacancy rate and few affordable options, that is a constant battle. Women fleeing domestic violence say the struggle to survive financially and find housing was as hard as leaving the abusive relationship.

In the new year, the Transition House will receive a provincial grant of $81,000 a year for at least three years to help women move from their services to independence.

“We’ll be able to target women in that in-between stage, which is so important,” said executive director Makenna Reilly. She said the money will help give at least 15 women $400 a month to help find affordable housing and become financially stable. The added bonus will be maintaining relationships with clients beyond their allotted one-month stay at shelters, she said.

Other new provincial programs will see increases to child tax benefits for families and how much those on disability assistance can earn to supplement their income as well as a freeze on rent increases at 2.5 per cent annually for 2015.

At the regional level, dozens of projects to combat poverty and homelessness are underway, supported by municipalities, organizations and citizens’ groups. Among them are three major housing projects. Wilson’s Walk (Pacifica Housing Society) in Vic West will provide 84 affordable housing units for families and working poor, along with 24 market rentals. In Saanich, Rosalie’s Village (St. Vincent de Paul Society) will help homeless women and children with 41 housing units and child care supports and Cottage Grove (Cool Aid Society) will house homeless seniors with 45 units.

A who’s who of Victoria fundraisers has banded together to support Cool Aid housing projects, with the goal of raising $5 million over the next five years.

“A lot of us know each other and have worked together,” said business owner Rob Reid, chairman of the new Capital Campaign Cabinet.

The group’s roster includes Helen and Ted Hughes, who Reid called “Victoria royalty when it comes to helping people,” World Partnership Walk pioneer and pharmacy owner Naz Rayani, Victoria Police Chief Frank Elsner, real estate agent Tony Joe, business consultant Frank Bouree and hotelier Ian Powell.

“We plan to be an action group, not one that just goes to meetings,” Reid said.

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