Island Voices: Changing the face of homelessness

I am devastated by what I see on the streets of our community. People are suffering and it is time that we do more than pay lip service to this growing calamity. I am talking about homelessness, although it is so much more than that.

At one time, homelessness was looked at through the lens of poverty. We assumed people were sleeping on the streets because they had messed up, because they had fallen on hard times and lacked the resolve to pull themselves out of it.

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Today, we know that’s not true.

Poverty isn’t the root cause of people finding themselves trapped in the cracks. It is definitely a factor that people raised in poverty have a greater likelihood of being a victim of abuse, poor nutrition, and neglect.

But there is another face. This face is one we never imagined would end up on the street. This is the face of neglected youth, injured workers, abused women, and people suffering from brain injuries and mental health issues that can strike anyone, at any income level, at any time.

The drug abuse and addiction issues that we see every day in this vulnerable population is a symptom of these factors rather than a cause. And the way to help these individuals is first through supportive housing.

It is almost impossible to stabilize someone and provide proper care until they have a safe place to lay their head at night.

Not in law, but in practice we have essentially decriminalized drugs in our city. Since supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites have opened in Victoria, people struggling with opioid addiction have been coming out of the shadows and into our city core to access these life-saving services. People are no longer sent to jail for using or being in possession of small quantities of illicit substances.

These are both good things because the opposite of addiction is connection. Isolation just feeds the addiction. By incarcerating or pushing people to the margins has only made their situation worse. People need to be brought into the community. The problem is that these individuals all need some kind of housing.

The good news is the provincial government has set aside money to build housing, including modular housing, that can be built quickly. All that’s needed for the modular housing is for the municipalities to provide land. The bad news is the municipalities in the Greater Victoria area have yet to step up and provide some land.

Politicians fear their constituents won’t support it because while people like to talk about the need to help, too few are willing to actually support making it happen in their neighbourhood. It’s heartbreaking that funding is available to help solve this crisis and yet we don’t have the communities’ support.

We need to get past that resistance. We need to understand that a staff-supported group of 40 to 50 people living in well-run temporary or permanent modular housing will not be a detriment to our communities. As taxpayers, we need to stand up and say “Yes!” rather than “No!” and we need to say it loud enough for our local politicians to hear and take note.

If we want to change the face of homelessness, we need to support the development of social housing, including modular housing with staff supports in our neighbourhoods. This means all the municipalities from the southern end of Finlayson Arm to the eastern shore of Sooke Harbour need to be involved.

Homelessness is not just a downtown Victoria issue, it is an “Us” issue. I invite you to join me in raising your voice and letting our politicians know that yes, together we can change the face of homelessness.

Don Evans is the CEO of the Our Place Society.

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