Island voices: Homelessness, and the reasons it exists

Homelessness has become a crisis in Nanaimo and in communities all over B.C. Although its most visible effects are now being seen, this is a problem that has been years in the making, due to bad decisions made by all levels of government.

Let me count the ways:

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First, the cancellation of tax breaks for rental construction has meant little or no new rental accommodation has been built for decades. As well, cancellation of co-op housing programs at both the federal and provincial levels in the 1990s made it harder for low-income Canadians to find secure, affordable housing.

And it was not as if Canada had a lot of social housing to begin with. Canada has a far lower rate of social housing than most Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, with just five per cent of its housing stock consisting of social housing, compared with Britain’s 18 per cent.

Second, keeping the B.C. housing allowance for those on social assistance at $350 a month for almost a decade and then raising it to just $375 a month created enormous hardship. The average rent now for a one-bedroom apartment in Nanaimo is $1,298.

Third, inadequate medical care has had additional repercussions. Not enough has been spent on mental health, with 7.2 per cent of total health care in Canada spent on mental health compared with Britain’s 13 per cent. In fact, spending on mental health decreased in the decade from 2003 to 2013.

The move in the 1990s to cut back on the number of family doctors being trained has led to the critical doctor shortage we have now. GPs are the gateway to services and treatment for those with addictions and mental-health problems, but if you don’t have a doctor, how can you get treatment?

There is also inadequate provincial funding for alcohol and drug-addiction treatment and rehabilitation. We simply do not have enough treatment beds for those who want or need them. In addition, the shutting down of mental-health institutions without providing community supports has left the mentally ill to fend for themselves on our city streets.

Finally, the reluctance of municipal governments to stand up to NIMBY groups when designating sites for social housing has meant missed opportunities for the construction of such housing, as we have seen in Nanaimo.

There are many other contributing factors to this crisis, but these are the main ones. So what can local governments, and in particular, Nanaimo city council, do? Again, let me count the ways:

First, our councillors have to lobby the federal government through our local MPs to restore tax breaks on rental construction and bring back housing co-op programs.

Second, they must vigorously lobby the provincial government to restore co-op housing programs; provide more money for social housing, treatment programs and community-based group homes for those with mental illness, brain injuries and addictions; and increase the number of family doctors.

Third, council should make a list of suitable sites for social housing so the city is ready when the provincial government offers to provide it. And finally, city councillors have to show some moral backbone by standing up to NIMBY groups who oppose social-housing projects.

It has taken years for us to get into this mess, and it will take years for us to get out of it. The time to start is now.

Kathryn-Jane Hazel is a former journalist and retired media studies professor. She lives in Nanaimo.

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