Maple Ridge homelessness a part of election

NDP wants national strategy on the issue, Conservatives prefer choice

Marc Dalton

Marc Dalton

While the city struggles with homelessness and the province pitches in, the federal government should also do its bit, says Coun. Bob Masse.

But it’s complicated.

“It’s such a complex issue. We don’t have a national housing strategy, so that’s part of it,” Masse said.

While early in the campaign, housing or homelessness as a federal election issue isn’t yet top of mind.

That will change, says NDP candidate Bob D’Eith.

“I think it’s going to be a very important topic coming into the election, especially in Maple Ridge.”

The homeless camp on Cliff Avenue is a good example of the problem.

“This is our community. These are our people. We have to take care of them and we have to figure out a way to do that.”

He understands why people are upset when the federal government walks away from its responsibility.

Although the NDP calls for a national housing strategy, newly named Conservative candidate Mike Murray says the NDP want a national strategy for many things, such as a national daycare program.

“But that won’t be our approach.”

Instead, the Conservatives want to put money into people’s pockets so they can make the decisions themselves.

Both the Liberals and NDP want centralized, Ottawa-based programs.

“That is not the direction of the Conservative party,” Murray said

The federal government, he added, is doing its part through the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, which funnels $119 million yearly to community groups across Canada. A key part of the strategy is the Housing First program, which makes provision of housing the priority before a client can receive help for other issues.

Metro Vancouver is the “community based entity,” which decides how to spend the money in this region and decides which projects in each city receive funding.

“The Conservative approach is that the people closest to the ground can meet the needs better,” Murray said.

However, moving to a Housing First focus resulted in the Iron Horse Youth Safe House losing most its funding, causing the emergency shelter part of the Maple Ridge house to close earlier this year because it could no longer meet the funding requirements.

The Alouette Home Start Society, which runs the safe house, said the society didn’t apply for the smaller portion of the money that was still available for emergency shelters because it couldn’t meet the requirements.

Ottawa also funds the affordable housing framework, which put $1.9 billion over five years across Canada, ending in 2014.

Another challenge which could add to the problem of housing is the ending of federal subsidies to co-op housing projects. Those long-term subsidies are expiring and could see coops having to increase rents for low-income people in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows.

Murray said he wants to study that issue more.

Masse said one step that has been discussed at Union or B.C. Municipalities and Lower Mainland Local Government Association meetings is reinstating tax breaks the federal government used to offer to encourage investors to build rental apartments.

That program worked well in 1970s and 80s, he said.

But just providing houses under the Housing First model without the myriad of support services isn’t enough, and Masse cites that despite building new housing in San Francisco or Vancouver, there’s been no change in the number of homeless.

Liberal candidate Dan Ruimy didn’t want to comment on the issue.

“I don’t know if I want to go there yet.”

For D’Eith, Housing First doesn’t work.

“Because it ignores the transition. It ignores the support that people need transitioning from the street.”

That program was used to justify cutting $600,000 in funding to Maple Ridge, and which also saw a reduction in the number of street outreach workers by 1.5 positions.

The NDP’s policy of having a national housing strategy would involve the federal government consulting with provinces and the cities.

“That’s the one thing [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper doesn’t do, is actually consulting with the province and local government and service providers to provide solutions for the homeless. It has to be a holistic approach,” D’Eith said.

“Homelessness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What’s happened, the federal government has basically downloaded everything. I think that’s why you see the municipality, locally, having to jump in.”

When the provincial government closed Riverview and patients were pushed out without support, they ended up on the street,” he added.

“We’ve basically, literally, downloaded responsibility. That’s why we find a lot of municipalities having a struggle with issues that are really federal or provincial.”

D’Eith said the NDP thinks it’s everyone’s problem.

“I think it’s a fundamental philosophical difference between the parties.”

He added that there are about 300,000 homeless people across Canada.

“So it is a significant issue.”