Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Decreasing Homelessness: It's a Public Policy Choice

This was what the Province published in response to their Editorial:

More shelters hasn't stopped homelessness,
February 3, 2011

Social Safety Net

Tracey Young, The Province, February 8, 2011

In March, there will be an initiative to count the numbers of homeless people in Metro Vancouver. What we know from previous counts and other research is that many communities around B.C. have seen dramatic increases in homelessness and insecure housing over the last decade.

It is a false argument to suggest that building more affordable housing is increasing the homeless population in Vancouver. It is the erosion of the social safety net that deserves the blame.

Structural conditions such as low income assistance and disability rates, a minimum wage that has remained stagnant for a decade, fast-rising costs of living and lowpaying jobs and insecure employment play a big role. Combined with the high costs of housing, lack of rent controls and preservation of rental stock, all of these factors work together to create a perfect storm of housing instability and increased rates of homelessness around B.C. Municipalities can no longer bear the responsibility, or blame, for the lack of health services and affordable housing being provided to high-risk/high-need citizens by the B.C. government and the health authorities. Real steps must be taken to decrease the risks of homelessness and the loss of dignity and inclusion too many of us face in B.C.

Tracey Young, B.C. Association of Social Workers


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This was my letter in it's entirety:

In March 2011 many individuals in Metro Vancouver will be participating in the initiative to count the numbers of homeless people residing in their communities. What we know from previous counts and other research is that many communities around BC have seen dramatic increases in homelessness and insecure housing amongst citizens over the last decade.

It is a false argument to suggest that building more affordable housing is increasing the homeless population in Vancouver when it is the erosion of the social safety net that deserves the blame. Structural conditions such as low income assistance and disability rates, a minimum wage that has remained stagnant for a decade, fast-rising costs of living and low paying jobs and insecure employment play a big role. Combined with the high costs of housing, lack of rent controls and preservation of rental stock all of these factors work together to create a perfect storm of housing instability and increased rates of homelessness in all areas of the province.

Your editorial asked "Wouldn't it be better to attack the roots of the problem with substance-abuse treatment and psychiatric services? The simple answer is yes. The complex answer is that these services have been gutted for young people and adults around BC. The mental health system of care in the community has never been more difficult to access for those with mental illness. Riverview Hospital, which has been discharging people for over two decades now, is slated for complete closure in 2012. Many health authorities have not built the required supportive housing that is necessary for those who require a higher level of care than most regions can support.

As a social worker on the front lines of BC over the last decade, my colleagues and I have seen all community and social support systems being cut and eroded. When people with mental illness and addictions cannot obtain stabilizing housing, mental and physical care and treatment, their conditions worsen. This is the case all over BC, not just in Vancouver. Although there are many more services in the urban context, that doesn't mean that they are accessible.

Emerging research is demonstrating that law enforcement and the criminal justice system are becoming the primary systems of contact for those with mental illness. What is criminal is that people must be arrested and incarcerated before they can receive any kind of mental health care in many instances. Individuals with mental illness and their family members know that this is true.

Municipalities can no longer bear the responsibility, or blame, for the lack of health services and affordable housing being provided to high-risk/high-need citizens by the BC government and the Health Authorities. Real steps must be taken to decrease the risks of homelessness and the loss of dignity and inclusion too many of us face in BC due to deep poverty and untreated health conditions.

Tracey Young, MSW, RSW

President of the Vancouver Sea-to-Sky branch
BC Association of Social Workers


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Here is an excerpt of the response from Mayor Gregor Robertson:

We're Working Hard to end Homelessness
By Gregor Robertson, The Province February 6, 2011

Through our new homeless shelters, we've seen street homelessness drop 47 per cent in two years -that's almost 400 people off the street. The Downtown Vancouver BIA credits these shelters with a drop in aggressive panhandling, trespassing, and open drug use downtown. By providing a safe place to sleep and a warm meal, the low-barrier shelters bring stability to many people who've been homeless for years.

The city is working with the B.C. government and Streetohome Foundation to build over 1,500 units of affordable housing spread throughout Vancouver. This required provincial and foundation investment of over $330 million and 14 parcels of land donated by the city and it will provide supportive, stable housing for people who need it most.

Last week's Province editorial lamented that we still need 450 housing units to end street homelessness by 2015. I take a more positive view. Compared to where we were a few years ago, a gap of just 450 units is an incredible achievement. Our work is paying off, our programs are delivering results, and more and more people have a place to sleep at night.

Ending street homelessness is within our grasp.