A worsening homelessness crisis requires swift and drastic action across the board, yet some governments are not responding urgently enough.
That was a common frustration expressed at a Port Alberni forum held by Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns, one of three he hosted across the riding last week.
“We need all elected politicians on Vancouver Island to make housing a priority,” Johns said. “We need to get ahead of it.”
One in every four people in the riding struggles to afford a place to call home. With a municipal election this fall, the crisis should be a number one priority for local governments, which can work with developers to construct more non-market housing, he said.
But the MP reserved his harshest criticism for the federal Liberal government for dragging its feet with a National Housing Strategy that won’t fully kick into gear for another couple of years. Skyrocketing prices have driven people to more affordable communities such as Port Alberni, reducing the rental inventory while inflating rents.
“Today, four percent of housing in Canada is non-market housing,” he noted, comparing that to Europe where the figure is 30 per cent. “Some countries make it a priority. They put people before profit. That’s not happening here. We’re seeing the inequities skyrocket.”
Johns led off a panel discussion that included local affordable housing advocates along with Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne.
Marika Albert of B.C. Nonprofit Housing Association described the seriousness of the problem on a provincewide level, explaining that 120,000 B.C. residents pay more than half their income for rent.
“That means you’re at risk of homelessness…because if anything happens you will not be able to pay your shelter costs,” Albert said.
In Port Alberni, with the lowest median income on the Island, 50 per cent of renters are paying more than 50 per cent of their income for rent. That’s roughly 8,000 people who are at risk of homelessness.
Wes Hewitt of Port Alberni Shelter Society, currently building new shelter and supportive housing units, tried to dispel the notion that homelessness in the city is an imported problem caused by itinerant arrivals.
“Our homelessness issues are from people from this community, not from other communities,” Hewitt said. “We’ve got a critical shortage of housing all over the Island and province.”
With about 500 city residents over age 65 living below the poverty line, he stressed the need for more affordable seniors’ units.
Alberni Valley Stakeholders Initiative to End Homelessness, a city-led initiative, was formed in 2007. Terry Deakin, who heads the initiative, said the number of homeless people in the valley is about three times greater in 2018.
“We need the community to stand together and let everyone know we have an issue,” Deakin said. “We need our government to help, everybody trying to do their part.”
Osborne said insufficient housing has plagued Tofino for years and change hasn’t come fast enough.
“Success is only going to be largely achieved when we decouple housing from making money,” she said. “None of us can do this alone. We need compassion, we need open minds and we need partners.”
Hesquiaht Chief Richard Lucas said Indigenous people make up 20 per cent of the city’s population, yet they are not adequately represented in the decision-making and dialogue around affordable housing.
Gary Spencer-Smith said city regulations throw up hurdles for landlords, in effect limiting the number of rental units available in town.
Several renters also spoke at the forum, sharing the desperate circumstances of their struggles to maintain adequate housing for themselves and their families.
“I know at least six moms who would benefit from low-income housing,” one woman said. “We don’t have any other outlets.”
John McEown of B.C. Housing said the province budgeted $7 billion over 10 years to support new housing in all sectors, including $1.8 billion for rental housing. The key objective is to use the minimal amount of taxpayer dollars to create as much affordable housing as possible, he said.