Cuts to programs that help the homeless hurt us all

The most obvious solution to problems with homelessness and vagrancy is also the cheapest, most effective and most feel-good solution: shelter those who need it. It’s called a ‘housing first‘ strategy, and it has led to New Westminster’s striking reduction in the number of homeless people living in our city.

Between 2002 and 2008, the population of homeless people in New Westminster increased 118%. Thanks to policy changes, collaboration with community members and a partnership with BC Housing, New Westminster was able to help many of those who were unsheltered to find homes. Between 2008 and 2011, the homeless population shrank by 43% and by another 17% between 2011 and 2014. Key to this success was that BC Housing partnership, which created 84 transitional and supported housing units, as well as housing referral, outreach and advocacy programs that helped prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

However this approach is in jeopardy due to funding cutbacks. According to New West Senior Social Planner John Stark, New Westminster-based homeless outreach, referral and advocacy programs are facing $382,000 in cutbacks this year. This is in addition to significant cutbacks in 2013 and 2014 to other programs serving those who were homeless or at-risk. Furthermore, changes to program eligibility requirements are making it difficult for some in need to access services.

  • The Elizabeth Fry Society‘s Maida Duncan Drop-In Centre is in jeopardy now that the coordinator position is no longer funded by the federal government’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy program. The centre provides at-risk women and children with a safe space to access a computer, laundry, dental services, peer support, meals, and community supports. While the program is still operating, the centre cannot be sustained much longer without securing a new source of funding.
  • The Senior Services Society will have to reduce program support due to staffing cutbacks, which will hurt their ability to help seniors find housing assistance. At any given time, the society works with 150 seniors who are either homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness. Changes in eligibility criteria mean that seniors who are homeless for the first time or “only” at risk of homelessness will no longer be able to access help from Housing First programs.
  • Another program that lost funding was the Women In Need Gaining Strength housing outreach position. Since 2004, this outreach program helped 938 women and 734 children fleeing abuse at home, helping them to find new places to live and re-settle in new communities. Fundraising efforts were able to close the gap in funding for this program to maintain services, for now.
  • In 2014 the Hospitality Project lost $150,000 in HPS funding for their advocacy, triage and referral programs. These programs specifically targeted people at risk of becoming homeless, helping them to retain housing and locate shelter. With the new criteria focused only on those who are chronically or episodically homeless, the programs no longer qualified for funding.
  • In 2013, Lookout Emergency Aid Society lost funding from Fraser Health for a contract to provide non-clinical outreach to homeless people, resulting in over 400 people per year being unable to access services like service search and referral, case planning, and counselling.

It is penny wise and pound foolish to cut back on programs like these. When people are homeless, the public pays for it in increased policing and hospital costs.

As the New Yorker put it, homelessness is an expensive problem when you do nothing to solve it.

Homeless people are not cheap to take care of. The cost of shelters, emergency-room visits, ambulances, police, and so on quickly piles up. Lloyd Pendleton, the director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, told me of one individual whose care one year cost nearly a million dollars, and said that, with the traditional approach, the average chronically homeless person used to cost Salt Lake City more than twenty thousand dollars a year. Putting someone into permanent housing costs the state just eight thousand dollars, and that’s after you include the cost of the case managers who work with the formerly homeless to help them adjust. The same is true elsewhere. A Colorado study found that the average homeless person cost the state forty-three thousand dollars a year, while housing that person would cost just seventeen thousand dollars.

It is cheaper to house the homeless than to leave them on the streets. And it is cheaper still to help prevent people at risk from losing their homes in the first place.

A January 26 report to council from the City’s Development Services Department outlined the potential impacts of these funding cuts:

This loss of funding will have a significant impact on the community, as the programs in question enable residents to maintain their existing housing, locate new housing in crisis situations and address issues which may contribute to their homelessness. They also target some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, including low-income individuals, frail seniors and women and children who are at-risk of homelessness or who are fleeing abuse … the loss of the programs in question will make it more difficult for staff to make referrals in case of eviction or homelessness, contribute to increased street and visible homelessness and place increased pressure on Bylaw Enforcement, Police and Social Planning, with its associated costs.

The report concluded with the recommendation that the City should direct staff to approach senior levels of government to explore alternative or new funding sources for housing outreach, referral and advocacy programs in New Westminster. I think that’s a great start, but I also think citizens in New Westminster who have noted and approved of the decline in visible homelessness need to remember that it was no accident.

Programs like those provided by Lookout, The Hospitality Project, Elizabeth Fry and Women In Need Gaining Strength and the Senior Services Society are our bulwarks against homelessness. Even those of us who are privileged with health, employment, and emergency funds find it a struggle at time to make ends meet in pricey Metro Vancouver. Imagine how difficult it must be for those who must also cope with addictions, chronic physical health problems, mental health issues, domestic abuse and other factors that introduce extra barriers to employment and making rent.

Note: the information on homelessness in New West and the cuts to local programs came from a report to council created by the Development Services Department. I would link to it, but I was not able to find it online. This report was shared at the February meeting of the Community and Social Issues Committee, of which I am a member. The report was presented for our review and discussion, and I thought the information was worth sharing more widely. 

The loud side of civic engagement: Sapperton speaks out on EFry

Sapperton residents posted signs to demonstrate opposition to the Elizabeth Fry Society rezoning application. Photo: Will Tomkinson
Sapperton residents posted signs to demonstrate opposition to the Elizabeth Fry Society rezoning application. Photo: Will Tomkinson

United We Roar

An outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that New Westminster is rife with problems and dissent. Each day we hear of another action group bringing attention to an unwanted project or program or another group insisting that the community is in dire need of another service, amenity, policy or facility. So many of our eyes are focussed on glossy presentation boards in public forums, riotous Twitter battles , new blog entries and comments, visceral letters to the editor and reports and editorials in our local paper. Punching well above our weight, local councillors, trustees, resident’s association members and concerned citizens appear in regional and even national media on a regular basis, broadcasting the message that New Westminster is indeed grappling with weighty, weighty matters.

But is this the case? Is our city riven by conflict and acrimony? Torn between policy alternatives? So perpetually impaled on the horns of a dilemma that no amount of consultation, committee meetings or survey results can hope to bridge our collective chasms? No, I suggest that this is not the case. I suggest that, in fact, our community is more cohesive and productive than is usually expected in a plural, urban city. Our public debates are just the evidence of our well developed civic polity.

What we see, daily, exasperatingly, is the result of thousands of New Westminster residents expressing their opinions on topics that they plainly care about and about which they have obviously done some research. While some Residents’ Associations are an outspoken organ of public opinion and others languish in irrelevancy, what is true across the Royal City is that citizens, whether united in groups or standing up as individuals, care about what happens in their town and are prepared to express their opinions and act on their beliefs. What we hear and see, however, resembles constant strife as the victories and blessings of our town are not so vocally celebrated.

The residents of the great and dynamic community of Queensborough are unlikely to fill a blog post with thanks for an expanded community centre, additional police resources and some of the best playgrounds and schools in the city. Understandably, you will hear more about Queensborough as a forgotten or neglected neighbourhood with bridge traffic, poor pedestrian mobility and threatened by flooding and rapacious land developers.

West End and Connaught residents could be boasting about an inspired rebuild of the Grimston Park playground, the muscular housing and renovation boom or the significant upgrade of the civic plumbing (yawn). No, locals in this neighbourhood instead mention the complete lack of civic facilities in this third of the city, traffic on 20th St and where exactly their kids are supposed to go to school when Tweeds goes to the K-5 model.

Over in Kelvin and Uptown, do residents praise local improvements to Moody Park and the replacement of the Kiwanis pool? Do they thank City Hall for standing up against bad landlords and for the maintenance of rental housing inventory? No, but this is no surprise. Citizens here are more likely to bring up the speed of traffic next to the park, unruly behavior during the day in the commercial area near 6th 6th and in the evenings, in Moody Park. Businesses here bring up the unending road and sewer work and the absence of attention paid to the uptown merchants.

Ahh, Queens Park; a neighborhood apart. Or is it? Do they not also have their triumphs and trials? Other neighbourhoods may point out (quickly, to a fault) that this is a neighbourhood of posh homes, boasting excellent city landscaping, the best elementary school in the region, a collection of parks – one of which is so splendid, so truly regal that its very name, QUEEN’S Park evokes the image of the great and dour Empress Victoria lording over the rest of the city, scepter in hand. But let’s all be honest, in addition to having to put up with the endless insufferable comments about how cosseted QP is (it’s not) , residents of this small section of the city have to be on constant guard against the unending and creative ways city and other levels of government remove money from their upper-middle-class wallets.

Glenbrook, a neighbourhood so awesome it needed the Real Estate community to develop a name for it, shares with Massey-Victory Heights the benefit of being filled with family-friendly tree-lined streets, larger lots and good schools (some of them quite new), but what of the increasing traffic burden of McBride, 8th and 10th? Will condos and townhouses encroach? Canada Games Pool: really – is that the best we can do for a pool?

Downtown, Fraserview and Quayside, you can comment below. The article is already too long.

The Little Neighbourhood that Could, or Could it?

I think you get the picture: from an informed and engaged population, you get a chorus, a cacophony of grasping, needing, pleading outrage. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You may have noticed that in this list of neighbourhoods, I have not yet mentioned Sapperton. Sure the same pattern exists here as in other zones but recently, Sapperton’s reality shows us a new aspect of the relationship between neighbourhoods and the City, and illustrates the limits of a cohesive, informed and engaged group of citizens.

Along with the rest of our city, Sapperton is enjoying a rebirth of sorts. Improvement to the East Columbia St. commercial district is noticeable and retail turnover seems to have slowed. Townhouses and towers have added new vitality to commerce and the streetscape. The Brewery District has sprung to life with some great potential and the best large-format grocery store in the city (IMHO). The local small elementary school has been rescued, (for good this time) and is nestled against a well-tended park with an updated playground. Walk the leafy streets and you will see neighbours chatting on the sidewalks in front of neat, even, manicured single family homes on small lots, practically high-fiving one another at how tidy and livable their neighbourhoods have become. And yet when these same people unanimously presented an informed and reasoned defence of their neighbourhood, they failed to receive the consideration, let alone the support of their City and City Council.

Now sure, I am often told that I often view city affairs with ‘rose coloured glasses’ and I have often disagreed with those who seem to manufacture outrage where none is warranted, but in this instance, I see a clear instance where the needs, wishes and welfare of New Westminster have been set aside; where a united stance has not been enough and the spirit of compromise and engagement has been met with a deaf ear. I this instance, I am speaking about the recent approval by council to amend the Official Community Plan (OCP) for the sole purpose of (possibly) rezoning one residential lot to allow the Elizabeth Fry Society (EFry) to construct a facility as an institution, allowing them to expand their services to at-risk women and families in the Lower Mainland.

In other neighbourhoods, recent programs and proposals in New West have also stirred the ever-vigilant population to action. When the West End’s only park was slated to be replaced with an elementary school, the community responded and the park was saved. When TransLink threatened to build the United Boulevard Extension, removing a whole block of homes and adding to the traffic misery of New Westminsterites, city and Council, almost with one voice, said hell no! Now it’s a similar story with the Pattullo Bridge: the city is against a six-lane option, and Council seems to be in the same corner. But if a united voice is an important factor to stop an unpopular or ill-advised program in these cases, why is it ignored in the case of EFry?

Certainly one argument has been that the “social good” EFry delivers in the lives of women in the region shows both a societal and humanitarian benefit greater than the objections brought against the expansion. But surely this argument was also used in the above three examples also: Grimston school, UBE and the six-lane crossing. In these cases a united, engaged constituency trumped the argument of “social good” when applied to the region. more accurately, the community put one set of “social goods” against another and won (in two cases, one is still pending).

A second argument posed by the residents is that their community, and New Westminster as a city, already has a significant number of social housing assets in the city, many specifically used as women’s shelters, women and children assisted living and so on. With so many of these facilities within this small city, this has become a distinctive feature. For all of our revitalization, renovation, and development, it has been said to me that the nature of New Westminster’s relationship with outreach and services makes it the halfway-house of the Lower Mainland: the redemptive, rehabilitative space between Surrey and Burnaby (metaphorically). Still, we are a generous city, willing to shoulder some of the burden shuffled off by our neighbours.

Sapperton residents particularly, during delegations to council prior to the OCP vote, cited the fact that their community is ringed by these services and facilities, many of which are not mapped, documented or referred to for the protection of their clients. This fact was brought up not to say that no new facilities should be built, nor that some should be closed, but rather that the saturation of social services counters the argument of NIMBYim. Sapperton, the residents contended, welcomed its supported housing neighbours, but suspending parking, zoning and the OCP for one property on a residential street is a clear and unacceptable threat to their streetscape, especially when other options exist for EFry.

In a nutshell, EFry intends to purchase this lot and house and develop a multistorey administration and services building to support the work this national women’s charity society is known for. Consequently, areas in the EFry “Blue Building” would be freed for more long-term supported living space. The new building will also house “long-term housing” for women with children (in 375 sq foot suites I am told). For EFry, the rezoning of this low-cost residential lot and repurposing of their parking lot is the best case and cheapest option in a city willing to change zoning and parking regulations to support the EFry program.

Representing Whom?

For the South Sapperton neighbourhood, there are no second chances, no Plan B, no alternative method of resolving their concerns. For EFry though, they seem to have options. On East Columbia, immediately adjacent to the EFry blue building is a poorly utilized commercial lot. Next to that lot is a vacant one. Also, if it is true that the new construction will be for the purposes of administration, the office space being built in the Brewery District would be both close and require less capital outlay. EFry could also, and correct me if I am wrong, simply buy the lot in question and renovate/rebuild within the existing zoning, running residential services or day-care facilities as is done in dozens of houses throughout New Westminster.

Why EFry wishes to pursue their course in the face of workable options and near-unanimous local opposition is a mystery for me. It is possible that they are so convinced of their vision and services that their directorship believes they override the inconvenience of seeking compromise and neighbourliness. From my vantage point, the EFry leadership may view the concerns of a “privileged” property owning middle class invalid in the face of their work, a vocation to which they have devoted their lives and perhaps their credulity. In the same way, the EFry support on council insist that “they know best” and demonstrate a level of paternalism in that, “The people who don’t realize the advantage of having those services available in their community aren’t doing enough research,” as expressed by Councillor Puchmayr, one of three council members in favour of the proposal (vote was 3-1 with one councillor recused and another in the Mayor’s Chair for the evening).

Time after time, our council has stood up for the rights of residents to defend the livability of our neighbourhoods. To close their ears to the overwhelming opposition of Sapperton residents to this project will erode confidence in the integrity of this council as advocates for the citizens of New Westminster. It is the mandate of council to see the bigger picture beyond neighbourhood concerns, but councillors also have a responsibility to hear and respond to the concerns residents have brought forward.

  • What will council do to limit the further impact of this and similar service organizations on the residents in the city, who through no fault of their own, have decided to raise their middle class families in this city?
  • What will be done to ensure that the citizens of Sapperton receive no further negative impact to the parking problem in their neighbourhood from the construction of a new tower and the removal of an existing parking lot?
  • What will council do to explain why the compassionate, reasoned, civil opinions of the locals in Sapperton should be put aside, essentially with no response, in favour of the goals of the EFry Society?
  • Why are the many possible alternatives for EFry, none of which raise the ire or fears of the community, not being considered or advocated by councillors, city staff or the EFry leadership?
  • Why, when popular, near unanimous defence of livability can halt building on parkland, regional transit initiatives or (hopefully) the building of a six-lane Pattullo bridge, can it not even be considered as reason for pause on this subject?
  • And finally, what is it that is motivating council, and possibly staff, to ignore the citizens, ignore the OCP, ignore parking and zoning laws and their own re-election possibilities, to back this proposal when clear alternative exist, even in a city overpopulated by similar facilities. What makes EFry so special?

Perhaps we will learn the answers to these questions in the coming months. Perhaps the program will stall at the rezoning level. Perhaps the people of New West will form a trust and buy the lot themselves and “put their money” where their neighbourhood is. We will see. I welcome civil and on-topic comments in the section below.

Community Garden harvest to benefit Elizabeth Fry Society

Ripe corn from the Mary Mount Community Garden in New Westminster. Photo: New Westminster Community Gardening Society
Ripe corn from the Mary Mount Community Garden in New Westminster. Photo: New Westminster Community Gardening Society

This Saturday, members of the New Westminster Community Gardening Society will harvest the first crop of corn, beans and squash from Mary Mount Community Garden in Sapperton.

NWCGS chair Brennan Anstey said in a media release that the garden was planned using traditional First Nations organic permaculture techniques.

“The corn provides support for the beans, which fixate nitrogen for the corn and the squash acts as a ground cover to keep in moisture and keep down weeds,” said Anstey.

The gardeners will share their bounty with the Elizabeth Fry Society, a New Westminster-based non-profit organization that helps women and children who are coping with homelessness, poverty, addiction, mental illness and/or are re-integrating into society after time spent in jail.

“This is part of the commitment we made to the City to help promote food security in New Westminster”, said David Maidman, a member of the society’s Board of Directors.

“I think when you look around at what we have grown this year on this small plot of ground it shows the future potential for urban agriculture in New Westminster.”

If you want to apply for a community garden plot in New Westminster, contact the New Westminster Community Gardening Society at nwcommunitygarden@gmail.com or phone 778.372.1333.