Editorial: Wider housing strategy needed

Hundreds of homes for the homeless are planned for Greater Victoria, which will go a long way toward easing a growing problem. Truly fixing that problem will require similar efforts in cities across Canada.

The Capital Regional District’s housing strategy calls for creation of 440 units of subsidized housing and 440 units of market rental units over the next five years. In partnership with the province, the plan would pump $60 million into housing. The CRD will borrow $30 million, and the province committed to match that amount.

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The hope is that the federal government will kick in $30 million.

According to the plan, at least 268 units would be rented for the $375-per-month shelter allowance, and another 175 would carry affordable rents.

The focus is on those who are chronically homeless, probably the hardest part of the homelessness puzzle to solve. The province has already bought 229 units of supportive housing to shelter people from the tent city that formerly occupied the lawn of the provincial courthouse.

For a city of its size, Victoria has a lot of homeless people. Victoria’s homeless count in February found 1,387 people who were sheltered or on the street. Compare that to the much larger city of Vancouver, which found 1,847 in its count.

Progress in both cities has been discouragingly slow.

Vancouver’s count of 1,847 was the highest number ever recorded in that city, and is about 100 more than the year before.

Eight years ago, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson promised to end street homelessness by 2015. Despite programs to encourage more affordable housing, that goal obviously hasn’t been met.

Of those counted in Vancouver, 60 per cent had been homeless for less than a year, which suggests more people are falling onto the streets in spite of the city’s efforts.

For decades, the numbers have been exacerbated by the lack of mental-health and addictions treatment for people who need it.

It is no surprise that Vancouver’s homeless count found 53 per cent of the people had addiction problems and 40 per cent had mental-health problems. In Victoria, 28 per cent cited addiction or mental-health issues as barriers to housing.

Building rooms and apartments will solve only part of the problem. Building them only in Victoria and Vancouver, while the homeless in the rest of Canada have few options, will also solve only part of the problem.

Over the past few years, Vancouver has worked with the province to build 1,500 units of supportive housing, yet more than 2,300 people are on B.C. Housing’s waiting list.

We not only have to build housing, we also have to find ways to prevent people falling into homelessness. Aboriginal people are heavily over-represented in the homeless population, with 32.6 per cent of Victoria’s homeless identifying as aboriginal, compared to five per cent of the general population.

Young people are too often found on the streets. In Victoria’s count, 36.9 per cent first became homeless before they were 18, and 56.9 per cent before they were 30.

As many housing advocates say, we need a strategy that covers the wide range of causes and that covers the whole country.

“Every mayor in Canada will tell you that homelessness is a big issue in their city, and so we can do all the work we want to as provincial and regional governments, but until the federal government comes to the table in a meaningful way with a housing strategy and with dollars, no, we’re not going to end homelessness,” said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps.

The capital region can’t do it alone.

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