Where is the solution to the homeless problem? Three West Coast mayors say it’s in our own backyard.

PUBLIC DISENCHANTED WITH REALITY OF TENT CITY!

HARSH LANGUAGE BORN OF DEEP FRUSTRATION!

ABSURD TO MINIMIZE PROBLEMS WITH TENT CITY!

                  Three headlines from Times Colonist Letters to the Editor, June 2, 2016

For anyone still pondering what, if anything, can be done to resolve the homeless issue swirling in our midst, three West Coast mayors currently wrestling with this problem in their own communities have some challenging advice: Yes, it can be done. But only if we work together.

Speaking at a public forum held this week at First Metropolitan United Church in Victoria, Kitty Piercy, mayor of Eugene Oregon, Ted Clugston, mayor of Medicine Hat, Alberta and Lisa Helps, mayor of Victoria told a packed audience that yes, the homeless issue is serious. It is also widespread–including tent cities–and it is getting worse everywhere.

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On the other hand, there is hard evidence to show that local communities can turn the tide around if given the tools to deal with it and work in a coordinated fashion. The necessary ‘tools’ include adopting regional approach to the issue instead of focusing on downtown, a coordinated effort by all public and non-profit agencies, adequate financial support from senior levels of government and last but not least, an engaged resident population willing to widen the definition of ‘community’ to include those living on the margins of society.

Achieving such a consensus requires a wide acceptance of two facts: one, that the poor, the addicted and the mentally ill are still members of the local community and second, that irrespective of their personal issues, they are not going away. Given this reality, noted Mayor Piercy, “I make it a point to tell people who oppose housing the homeless that ‘It’s not about whether you like them or not. It’s because you’re going to be happier when they’re housed–and so are they.”

Assuring people against housing the homeless, people who are visibly angry that their concerns and fears are not being taken seriously is a challenging task for all elected officials. Having someone who’s ‘in your face’ makes it tempting to respond by being dismissive. But blowing off critics merely widens the division in the community and makes consensus more difficult to achieve, said Mayor Lisa Helps. “When I meet someone who is angry about something”, she said, “I make a point of sitting down with them and getting them to tell me more about their concerns. More often than not, if we talk long enough, we discover there are concerns and ideas that we share and could work on together.”

But what if the person who is adamantly opposed to housing the homeless is the mayor himself? That was the challenge faced by pro-housing supporters in Medicine Hat when Ted Clugston became mayor. “Initially, I was very skeptical about the plans for affordable housing and especially of the “Housing First” principle,” Mayor Clugston admitted. “I grew up in a family that would never agree to accept any form of outside help (and) I viewed the Housing First proponents as simply dreamers and socialists.”

“If someone like me can be converted, anybody can.”

–Medicine Hat Mayor Ted Clugston

So what finally convinced him that it might work? Interestingly, here is where Helps’ theory of finding common interests is a case in point. Clugston said it wasn’t the moral imperative of helping the homeless that finally brought him around on the Housing First approach (although that too happened later) it was the suggestion he could save his city millions of dollars a year in police, fire and emergency health services by getting the homeless off the streets. As a life-long fiscal conservative, that notion was “right in my wheelhouse,” he said. But only if it could be shown to be truthful. “I insisted we track the results so we could verify it,” he said.

As it turned out, the actual reduction in overall costs was remarkable and has remained so, he acknowledged. And since then, Medicine Hat has become known as the first city in Canada to end homelessness. Clugston’s conversion came with that evidence. He now offers this firm assurance to other skeptics: “If someone like me can be converted, anybody can.”

In Eugene meanwhile, a university city of 160,000, including 21,000 university students, local agencies identified 1,451 homeless people in a recent count, 65% of whom had no shelter of any kind and a high percentage of whom were military veterans, noted Mayor Piercy. The community impact is being felt in several ways, some identical to the situation here in Victoria:

  • –the issue has become more visible to the community in recent years.
  • –there are growing impacts in parks and public spaces.
  • –the Occupy movement has raised awareness.

Adding to the problem, she said, there was no public shelter facility and only limited resources to fund temporary solutions. But, she adds, “Temporary shelters and food banks are not a solution to homelessness; they are just a band-aid. Only permanent housing can provide the security that allows people to deal with their personal problems in a consistent manner.”

The city currently offers two types of temporary accommodation, six tent encampments, each with 15-20 sites, all located away from residential homes and schools, plus 29 transitional housing units and one permanent housing option, with 22 micro-housing units. However it’s not enough, she admitted. To address the shortfall, the city has developed a regional (county-wide) approach to the issue, and recently adopted the Housing First principle for future housing initiatives. These will provide permanent housing options with supportive services. Funding support is being sought from the state level as well.

Despite the limited success so far, Eugene’s program has attracted the attention of other cities, Piercy said. “Both Portland and Seattle have asked us to show them what we’ve done in Eugene to see if this model could be used there as well.”

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A key question addressed by the mayors was, what is the proper role of senior governments in solving this issue? Up to now, many have supposed that only direct involvement in housing programs and increased support services by provincial and federal governments can solve the homelessness problem.

Not so, said all three mayors. “Homelessness will be solved by cities, not by provincial or federal governments,” according to Mayor Clugston. “Senior governments’ best role is to develop a housing strategy and provide the funding to implement it.”

Mayor Piercy agreed. “We’ve found that local resources exist that can manage the homeless issue to a great degree,” she said. These include local churches with vacant or underutilized property, including parking lots. “One church with extra parking space has agreed to host three Conestoga huts and three micro-houses on another section of church property,” she said.

As to what form a Housing First program would take in the CRD, Mayor Helps pointed to what she referred to as “an historic decision” last November when the CRD Board of Directors unanimously agreed to allot $30 million to fund a regional housing initiative to address homelessness in the region. The province has since matched that with its own contribution and Helps is optimistic the federal government will do the same. “So a coordinated response in the region is already underway,” she noted.

Where will that money be spent and how will the public be engaged? Helps says that a project priority list will be created based on regional data to identify specific needs. A task force called Priority One has been created to target about 75 hard-to-house people who are constantly cycling around the system, sometimes being housed, being evicted and back on the street again.

Another priority will likely target homeless youth, says Helps. “It’s shocking to realize how many young people are showing up in the homeless count,” she says, including those who have “aged out” of the foster care system at age 18.

Helps also wants residents to know that when it comes to choosing sites for new facilities, the public will be able to express their opinions and concerns, and that these will be addressed in the final design and operational guidelines of the facility.

“Cool Aid has been very diligent and effective in addressing public concerns about the operation of their facilities,” she notes, one reason why Cool Aid has had almost no complaints from the neighbours at any of its existing facilities. This principle will be followed with any new CRD project, says Helps.

In the meantime, concerned citizens could help themselves and others by becoming better informed about the Housing First approach to homelessness, and why it is being adopted by many other cities facing the same problem a Victoria. A good start would be to listen to the full recording of the three mayors’ forum at First Met. The link to that program is here.

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