On Semiahmoo Peninsula, homelessness is closer than many think

On Semiahmoo Peninsula, homelessness is closer than many think

Even in affluent areas, some residents teeter on the poverty line, writes Rev. Joan McMurtry.

Rev. Joan McMurtry

Special to Peace Arch News

Fifteen years ago, I moved to White Rock. Friends expressed surprise at my moving to such a wealthy area. Beautiful, with the waterfront and all, they thought it one of the most affluent in the Lower Mainland.

I settled into a modest duplex and began to work at First United Church in the core of the city. It was a congregation committed to their neighbourhood.

I joined Rotary and other organizations, and became a board member for the Women’s Resource Centre, now affiliated with Sources Community Resource Centre, a service organization providing support to the most vulnerable amongst us.

I slowly came to know what I call the “underbelly” of our affluent area. Unacknowledged and perhaps not believed by some, there are poor people here. They live in our 40-year-old walk-up apartment blocks and our basement suites, and sometimes they have to live on our streets. They are our children with families working low-income jobs, our aging parents on fixed incomes, our neighbours on disabilities and our friends suffering from mental illness.

One-out-of-10 people in our area lives in poverty, and life is clearly getting more difficult for them.

While those of us who own property have seen extravagant increases to our home values, there is now less than one per cent vacancy rate for rentals. Twenty per cent of our population live in rental accommodation. Some of it is pretty high end. Older, affordable in disrepair are vulnerable to renovation and reversion to condos, now referred to as “renovictions.”

Where do low-income renters turn?

Lower-income people are at risk of homelessness. It just takes a job loss or a debilitating illness or another piece of bad luck, and one is on the streets.

Sources has excellent programs to help low-income renters, including its Rent Bank, which provides short-term loans for families at risk of eviction.

B.C. is one of the wealthiest provinces, but we have Canada’s second highest poverty rate. Our basic income assistance is $661 per month; disability rates are $1,033 per month. These stipends hardly cover the basics of life – shelter, food and clothing.

A shocking 650 individuals a week receive food at the White Rock South Surrey Food Bank, and all are from this area. A third are children.

It is hard to get a leg up out of poverty when energy needs to be spent in just getting the basic necessities.

Many of us in White Rock and South Surrey now know about the “underbelly” because it is so much more evident. Because of this, there is an incredible generosity of spirit and collaboration.

First United, along with Options Hyland House, opened an extreme-weather shelter. Hundreds of volunteers work with Sources, Semiahmoo House and Alexandra House to provide food and social support, legal and economic advocacy and, as important, nonjudgmental friendship to our neighbours in distress.

Dick Avison, a member of First United, has been co-ordinator of the Extreme Weather Shelter in White Rock since its start in 2008. This past winter, the shelter opened 73 nights – a significant strain on volunteers and an even bigger stress on the upwards of 20 men and women who needed the shelter.

From Dick:

In the early days of the shelter, the three or four guests would pull up a chair, talk and enjoy their bowl of chili and a roll. The best-known regular – identifiable by his cowboy hat worn at a jaunty angle – would bang out a rousing piece of music on the piano. He would comment that many a local resident would come to expect him on his rounds picking up deposit tins and bottles, leaving bags of containers in the back alley.

More recently, one longtime guest asked my help to get her high-school certificate. I was impressed to note the office smarts of this lady. And here she was saying:“I’m 46 years old and I need to get back into employment!”

We also heard of the hardships of living rough. A local couple had a camp in a treed city lot close to the business centre. When they were away, the camp was removed to the dump. Tent, mats, bedding, spare clothing… gone.

In the deep of winter a while ago, I talked to a cleancut man in his 30s. On his second evening, he enquired whether we had shaving supplies. The next morning, I sent him off with a new shaver, and I often wondered whether he was able to move past his temporary situation.

In previous years, the shelter provided a one-zone adult bus pass to our guests. Such passes are no longer for sale. When guests have to get to a nearby city for social assistance, we don’t know how they get there.

At 7 a.m., as we drove home, we often would see a motley group of three or four guests walking to a restaurant. It was good to be aware that the shelter had provided a token amount – enough that each could buy a modest breakfast.

We can’t go it alone as volunteers. We need municipal, provincial and federal governments to step up to the plate, through our tax dollars, to provide structural and systemic support to lift people out of hunger and homelessness.

The Peninsula Homeless to Housing Taskforce (www.PH2H.com) was formed nine years ago. Last month, we launched a campaign to put pressure on provincial candidates and all parties to commit to developing solutions. Big changes of policies, programs and perspectives are required to reduce poverty. Subsidized and affordable housing needs to be built. Stipends need to be raised. Wages need to move towards “living.”

Our provincial government needs to give hope to our neighbours.

Meanwhile, last week, I recognized in the rain a man who had been at the shelter the previous month. He was looking for a bit of money for food. He doffed his hat to give me a better look. I asked how he was doing. He had his ID stolen at a shelter; he was hoping to get another job soon.

“Are you from around here?”

“Lived here all my life.”

“Got a place to stay tonight?”

He smiled, shifted his weight and said he’s got places.

My hope for his future is that he is tucked away in a safe, affordable little apartment, or even a room where he doesn’t get robbed and where he has a better chance of getting himself together to find that job.

Maybe he’ll have a good roommate, or at least neighbours who care.

Not too much too hope for, is it, in one of the wealthiest provinces of Canada?

Rev. Joan McMurtry is a retired White Rock United Church Minister and a member of the Peninsula Homeless to Housing Taskforce (PH2H).