Homelessness is coming up in numerous municipal election campaigns across Metro Vancouver, and for some reason, it hasn’t emerged as a major issue in Surrey yet.
This is likely because crime issues, and now an uproar over early voting, has consumed much of the media energy that is available. Given that Surrey issues rarely get a lot of attention in the Metro media (with a few exceptions), there hasn’t been a lot of talk about it.
However, homelessness is a big issue in Surrey, simply because there are a lot of homeless people here and the services available to them are a patchwork, at best.
Outgoing Mayor Dianne Watts focused a considerable amount of energy on homelessness and addiction problems early in her nine-year mandate, but there has been less focus on these issues in recent years. This is particularly unfortunate, as Watts is trying to sell Whalley as Surrey City Centre, yet many of the most acute problems related to addiction and homelessness occur in Whalley and, more recently, Newton.
However, homelessness is not confined to those two areas. There are homeless people in all parts of Surrey, even affluent South Surrey.
Dealing with homelessness is a complicated issue, and it is not solely a municipal responsibility, welfare and mental health services are provincial responsibilities. Unemployment insurance and housing are federal responsibilities (with housing also a function of provincial and local governments).
Some people say there would be no homeless problem if Riverview was still open. This is simplistic. While some of the homeless are mentally ill, others are simply people who have run out of housing options. Some may have lost their jobs, while others may have been taking shelter with a friend or family member and lost that option.
Some are drug addicts, and what they need most of all is some real help to kick the habit. But no one can be forced into treatment, and it rarely works if the addict isn’t willing to try and break the habit.
It is time that governments recognized that the high cost of housing, including rental housing, leads directly to more homeless people. Yet no government seems ready to tackle that issue, instead leaving it all up to the marketplace.
The last time I checked, few developers and builders were looking out for the homeless.
How is it possible for people making minimum wages to even pay for housing, even the most basic type?
Surrey has fumbled the ball in providing a secure winter shelter for the homeless, claiming there is no building available. Given the sheer number of buildings of all types in this city, that seems like a hollow excuse.
Surrey is also no closer to providing some sort of permanent homeless shelter, in conjunction with organizations such as the Salvation Army, which would provide not just emergency housing, but job training, financial management courses and options which help people to live independently and successfully.
Surrey needs look no farther than Langley’s Gateway of Hope to see a model that really seems to work. It does not stop homelessness, but it serves to provide a real alternative.
The three main candidates for mayor have not devoted much attention to this problem. They and their slate mates, along with all the independent candidates who are running, need to take up this challenge.
Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.