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Over the last few weeks I’ve been highlighting the extent of poverty and homelessness in British Columbia and, in particular, Greater Victoria. It’s clear that significant work still needs to be done to address these issues. But it’s also important to recognize the good work that has and is taking place. Through new subsidized housing units, the provision of rent supplements and other programs, local groups, in partnership with the Province, have provided housing and prevented homelessness for many vulnerable people in Greater Victoria.

Despite these efforts, combating poverty and homelessness remains a struggle, not only in British Columbia, but also throughout Canada. We cannot solely rely on the work of non-profit organizations and charitable groups to resolve these issues — they need government leadership and help from all of us. And all levels of government must step up and provide the resources and support so desperately needed.

How did we get here?

In the 1960s and 1970s, amendments to the National Housing Act (NHA) launched a number of public housing and support programs that led to the creation of around 200,000 social housing units over a 10-year span. However, these programs were short-lived due to cutbacks in social housing and related programs beginning in the mid 1980s.

Today, annual national investment in housing has decreased by over 46% and current federal operating agreements are set to expire over the next 20 years, putting an additional 365,000 Canadian households at risk.

While there have been some new investments in recent years, including fairly substantial investments towards affordable housing in 2010 and 2006, they have been time-limited.

Overall, government action on poverty continues to fall short. Federally, Canada remains the only G8 country without a national housing strategy and provincially, British Columbia remains the only province that has not committed to developing a provincial poverty reduction plan. With 3 million Canadian households in need of affordable housing and BC having one of the highest poverty rates in the country, it is time for all levels of government to take real steps forward to end poverty and homelessness in our province.

Federal Role

In April 2014, the Canadian Government announced plans to renew the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS), an approach to addressing homelessness by working in partnership with communities, provinces and territories, other federal departments and the private and not-for-profit sectors. With a commitment of nearly $600 million over five years and a new focus on using a Housing First approach, this is certainly a step in the right direction.

However, concerns over the short five-year time frame, the need for support and resources at a community level and Canada’s lack of affordable housing supply, leave many concerned about the ability of this plan to produce the results the government expects.

Similarly, in March 2014 the Governments of Canada and B.C. announced plans to extend the Investment in Affordable Housing (IAH) agreement. With each level of government committing to contribute $150 million over a five year period, IAH will support a range of housing needs for low-income individuals, families and seniors. Again, many doubt the ability of this investment to truly address the growing housing need in our province.

While strategies such as these help address some of the need, they are not enough. It is time for Canada to follow suit with all other G8 countries and develop a national plan or strategy to end homelessness.

Provincial Role

In response to BC’s homelessness crisis, the provincial government recently launched its Homelessness Prevention Program. This program expands rent supplements to four at-risk groups, helping individuals facing homelessness access rental housing in the private market. However, it does nothing to provide more affordable housing.

Instead, many argue that it is time for BC to adopt a comprehensive poverty reduction plan — one that would significantly reduce poverty and homelessness through legislated targets and timelines. The BC Poverty Reduction Coalition has been particularly active in this call, stating that BC needs a plan that addresses current issues with welfare rates and barriers, minimum wage, marginalized groups, affordable housing need, and access to childcare, education and healthcare.

This past fall, the Government of Saskatchewan announced their commitment to develop such a strategy, leaving British Columbia the only province without a plan to tackle poverty. With recent reports pointing out that BC has the highest rate of wealth inequality, a very high 16.4% overall poverty rate and one of the highest child poverty rates in the country, it is time for BC to join the rest of Canada and take comprehensive, long-term steps towards ending poverty and homelessness in our province.

Community Role

While effective action is still needed at the federal and provincial level, a number of communities across Canada have been making significant strides towards ending homelessness in their cities. Through the implementation of community plans, cities such as Lethbridge and Medicine Hat are well on target to end homelessness in their communities.

One of the champions of the recent community success has been the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. Through their document, “A Plan Not A Dream“, CAEH outlines the critical ingredients of a community-based plan and guides cities in the creation of their own local plans.

Here in Victoria, the Coalition’s 10-year goal to end homelessness is entering into its seventh year. The realization of their goals requires a community effort. Support from all levels of government, the private and not-for-profit sectors as well as local citizens is vital to their success.

Action Item 

As an MLA, I have witnessed first-hand the impact that public opinion and engagement can have on encouraging the BC government to focus on a specific issue. Therefore, this week’s action item asks you to consider communicating to decision-makers the importance of making poverty and homelessness a priority. A good start might be to contact your local MLA and let them know that you would like British Columbia to adopt a comprehensive poverty reduction plan.

Please also consider urging your friends and family to write letters or emails to local Mayors, Councillors, MLAs and MPs, and the offices of the Premier and Prime Minister. Perhaps you might wish to rally broader community support by talking to your friends and relatives about poverty and homelessness. It’s time for us to take long-lasting, substantive steps towards ending poverty and homelessness in our Province.

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