Thursday, July 31, 2008

Finding Our Way Home -- Recommendations

This is the sixth in a series of excerpts from the report on homelessness in BC, "Finding Our Way Home" prepared by David Chudnovsky, Opposition Critic for Homelessness in the Legislature. Today's portion lays out the twelve key recommendations of the report. The complete report can be read at

1) Re-establish the Ministry of Housing
Housing and homelessness are currently addressed by the Ministry of Forests and Range. In order to deal effectively with this crisis and to ensure the necessary coordination, setting of standards and accountability, the focus and resources of a stand-alone ministry and a dedicated minister are required.

2) Eliminate the homeless crisis in 5 years
The Homelessness Act 2008, which will be introduced by MLA David Chudnovsky in the fall session of the legislature, commits government to a plan to eliminate the crisis within 5 years. The plan must address problems in both rural and urban areas, and require the minister to establish annual targets and timelines for the reduction of homelessness. It will also mandate the Auditor General to report yearly on progress.

There are precedents from all over North America where it has been recognized that a concrete plan and goal to end homelessness are required to really make it happen. Today more than 300 US communities have committed themselves to plans as part of a nationwide effort to end homelessness in the United States.

It is, perhaps, important to comment briefly about the so-called “Portland Model”. We have much to learn from Portland, especially their commitment to “Housing First.” That city reduced homelessness by 70% in the first 18 months of their plan.
However, the situation in Portland (and many American cities which have begun to deal with homelessness) is significantly different from ours in at least one significant aspect. Portland had the ‘advantage’ of a healthy vacancy rate and therefore the availability of rooms and apartments into which homeless people could be placed. BC is not in the same situation. Low vacancy rates are a problem in almost every city and town in the province.

3) Re-invest in a social housing program
Key to eliminating the homelessness crisis is re-investment in a social housing program. At a minimum, a commitment to 2400 units immediately, plus 1200 annually is required.

The $250 million currently in the B.C. Housing Endowment Fund should be reallocated as an emergency infusion of funds towards these units.

In addition, innovative partnerships must be utilized to further expand the number of units. An end to the homeless crisis requires commitment and participation from all 3 levels of government, the private sector, non-profit organizations and other community institutions and organizations. The more partners willing to participate in the strategy, the more housing units can be built and more supports for success can be put in place.

A result of the dramatic shortage of homes is the development of serious bottlenecks in the shelter/housing that is available. For instance, emergency shelter staff report that people are staying much longer in their facilities than they had in the past, and staff are often ignoring the guidelines and allowing people to stay longer than the period to which they are entitled. As well, homeless people are often moving from one emergency shelter to another rather than finding permanent homes.
Similarly, there are reports from a number of service providers who administer transitional housing that clients are staying longer than they are supposed to because there is simply no place for them to go.

4) Support local governments and community organizations
Local government is a key partner in the battle to end homelessness. More needs to be done to facilitate and encourage local government to work with housing and community organizations and neighbourhoods. Many small and medium sized communities do not have the internal capacity to respond to homelessness. The establishment of a Small Communities Fund would provide resources to assist in the development of housing and other solutions.

Community Charter tools like inclusionary zoning, which require a percentage of affordable/social housing in developments over a certain size to facilitate
a mix of housing, need to be enhanced.

The Vancouver Social Housing Amendment Act, 2008 was introduced by MLA Jenny Kwan. This bill amends the Vancouver Charter to allow for increased density as compensation for the creation of social housing. These tools can be used to create units for people who are hard to house, as well as families with children,
seniors and individuals.

5) Focus on the whole province
Many think homelessness is a Lower Mainland problem or even simply a downtown eastside problem. The crisis exists in almost every city and town across BC. The government must focus on solutions for the whole province.

6) Expand social housing on existing sites
Existing social housing sites offer a valuable opportunity to increase the stock of social housing. When redevelopment takes place, a minimum of two for one replacement of existing units where the site and zoning allow it.

7) Include four key elements in social housing and support programs
In order to effectivively address the homelessness crisis, the following principles must be incorporated into any social housing and support programs:
• “Housing First plus the supports necessary for suc-
cess” including low barrier programs to meet
people where they are. A theme of the consulta-
tion was serious lack of, and the need for many
more “damp,” or “wet” services for people who are
homeless. This is a component part of the “Hous-
ing First” approach, which insists that people do
not have to “clean themselves up” before they
are entitled to a place to live. However these kinds
of facilities (whether emergency shelters, transi-
tion housing etc.) are extremely hard to find and
the ones that do exist are overburdened and un-
der resourced.

Specific targeted programs are needed to meet
the needs of people coming out of jail who are
discharged to shelters, children in care transition
ing to adulthood, people coming out of hospitals
with nowhere to go and first nations people;

• Homelessness prevention including support for
third party rentals by organizations so people with
out references/experience renting can get housing;
a program that provides support for small
landlords who house people who are hard to
house; and emergency support for tenants to keep
their housing;

• Adequate infrastructure including the provision of
adequate staffing resources for organizations pro-
viding housing for the hard to house;

• Accountability to ensure that programs meet targets
and standards.

8) Maintain and expand the public land bank
Social housing and the land it sits on is a legacy for our province which should not be sold off. If government chooses to derive additional income from this land then it should be leased, not sold.

To reduce the cost of public social housing, federal, provincial and municipally owned land should be utilized. In addition, SRO sites in communities like the Downtown Eastside can be used as land for social housing.

9) Protect manufactured home tenants
The Manufactured Home Park Tenancy Amendment Act 2008 introduced by New Democrat MLA Harry Bains strengthens the rights and security of tenure for tenants living in manufactured home parks. This is essential to preventing displacement and increased homelessness.

10) Strengthen security of tenure and rights for tenants
The Residential Tenancy Act Amendment Act 2008 introduced by New Democrat Opposition MLA Diane Thorne provides more protection for tenants facing eviction and provides new rights for tenants to move back into their homes after renovations at reasonable rents. A second Residential Tenancy Act Amendment Act 2008 introduced by New Democrat Opposition MLA Jenny Kwan institutes a rent freeze on single room accommodations for a three-year period to ensure rents do not skyrocket during the 2010 Olympics. Both of these initiatives are key to preventing increased homelessness.

Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance policy allows security deposits to be provided to clients only twice. In rare circumstances a third deposit is provided. This does not make sense. The consequence of the policy is that people are prevented
from accessing an apartment or room simply because they do not have the “up front” money for a security deposit.

The Ministry argues that once someone has lost a damage deposit twice it is inappropriate to provide a third one. But this ignores a number of factors. Many people are unaware that they are entitled to have their deposit returned when they leave a rental. Some landlords cheat and choose not to return the deposit even when the renter is entitled to it. For people in marginalized situations a dispute over a security deposit and engagement with the residential tenancy branch is a forbidding and difficult process.

11) Increase income assistance rates and the minimum wage
Inadequate income levels must be increased if British Columbians are to be able to afford housing and the barriers to getting on and staying on income assistance need to be addressed.

12) Increase mental health and addiction services
Homelessness is linked to many other social determinants such as poverty, mental health and addiction. In addition to the recommendations above, increasing mental health and addiction services is essential to effectively addressing homelessness.

A significant problem is the lack of mental health and addictions programs in the regions. Services in Vancouver are inadequate, but the situation outside of the Lower Mainland is even worse. One of the results is that people who need support and treatment flock to Vancouver, and often to the downtown eastside, because there is at least a chance they will get much needed services.

This places an added burden on already dramatically overburdened service providers in Vancouver while it removes fragile people from their own communities where they may have useful family and social supports.


Patrick Lok said...

A great read - homelessness awareness is at an all-time high in BC, yet many citizens feel overwhelmed by the issue.

Focusing on tangible solutions like these is the first step towards progress.

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