COLUMN: Still work to be done on homelessness in Surrey

Homelessness issues in Surrey are getting much more attention than they used to, but much more could be done.

The homelessness count results, released on Tuesday, show Surrey has 231 street homeless people and another 157 living in shelters. Compared to the last count, which was taken in 2008, there are 62 more people living in shelters and 76 fewer living on the streets.

In the entire Metro Vancouver region, the number living on the streets has dropped by 54 per cent from the 2008 count, to 731 from 1,574. This shows a clear pattern of additional shelter beds and more permanent housing being made available, and is particularly remarkable when considering the economic climate between 2008 and 2011.

Much of the credit for this is due to the provincial government and, particularly, Housing Minister Rich Coleman, who has put a tremendous amount of energy into this issue. He has relentlessly lobbied his cabinet colleagues successfully for far more government spending on housing for the homeless.

A number of mayors, including Dianne Watts of Surrey and Gregor Robertson of Vancouver, have also pushed hard for a wide variety of solutions to a longstanding problem.

However, Surrey Coun. Judy Villeneuve, who also serves as president of Surrey’s Homelessness and Housing Society, makes some excellent points about the issue within Surrey. She notes Surrey has six homelessness outreach workers, fewer than Victoria and just over one-third of the number in Vancouver. Even Kelowna has more outreach workers than Surrey, which seems astonishing, considering how fast Surrey is growing.

These workers play a critical role in reducing homelessness, as they make individual contact with homeless people, build relationships and steer them towards the most appropriate forms of assistance.

Villeneuve also points out that the spread-out nature of Surrey means these workers can’t possibly make contact with all the city’s homeless.

For example, few people will think of homelessness being a problem in South Surrey or White Rock, but there are most definitely homeless people there. Is there any real contact being made with them, when the homeless issue is more prominent in Cloverdale, Whalley and Newton?

The fact that 231 of a total of 731 street homeless people in the region were in Surrey at the time of the count earlier this year is also troubling. Even though there are more shelter spaces and more housing programs available, there are a lot of street homeless in this community. Given the small number of outreach workers, it is quite likely that there are even more, but they are completely off the radar screen.

Compared to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, there are very few shelters, services and programs for street homeless people. It is quite possible that some of them travel back and forth between downtown Vancouver and Surrey on SkyTrain, but there definitely needs to be more help available in this community.

The best solution to homelessness is a decent job, and many people who have been homeless have been able to go that route. But some won’t get any kind of job until they deal with addiction or other issues, and as a society we are far better off helping them than leaving them on their own.

Surrey citizens and local politicians need to keep the pressure up to ensure that there are sufficient services in Surrey available for people who are homeless, or are close to falling into that category.

Hopefully three years from now, the number of street homeless in Surrey will drop far more dramatically.

Frank Bucholtz writes Fridays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.