Removing barriers to get people off the street and into homes is the priority of an action plan presented by the city’s homelessness solutions task force on Tuesday.
The plan identified a lack of low barrier housing in Maple Ridge and requested a staff report on the possibility of bringing in container housing.
Mayor Nicole Read gave council an update on the task force’s progress, prior to its formal release next Thursday, May 28.
“We need to get something on the ground relatively quickly,” Read said during a livestreamed, half-hour slide presentation.
“We have quite an emergent situation.”
A homeless camp has formed on Cliff Avenue in recent weeks, behind the Salvation Army shelter.
One solution to the homelessness problem, according to the task force, could be bringing in shipping containers converted into 250-sq. foot living units.
“We’ve got some significant gaps in housing in this community,” Read said.
There are no low-barrier shelters here where people can get a roof over their heads no matter what their problems. And the new federal government’s Housing First program is more difficult for smaller cities to access, she added.
Read said the biggest challenge is affordability. Currently, single employable people only get $375 a month for shelter allowance, taken out of their $610 monthly income assistance.
Meanwhile, the average cost of rental housing per year in Maple Ridge is $13,000.
“You can see there’s a significant gap there,” Read said.
“What we’ve heard over and over again from our citizens who are currently unsheltered is that, ultimately, they need a place of their own.”
Sharing premises can lead people back to the drug world or eviction, she explained.
Read said the task force has talked to B.C. Housing about possible housing types.
“Ultimately, this kind of housing is something council really needs to have a conversation about.”
Read said the city wants to get homeless campers off Cliff Avenue, but doesn’t have a solution for that yet.
If the task force’s strategy didn’t succeed in a few months, Coun. Gordy Robson, who, along with Coun. Bob Masse, is on the task force, wants to try a new approach.
“If this model doesn’t work quickly, we’re going to change it to a more direct and actionable way,” Robson said.
“I’m hoping we’re going to see a difference in weeks and if we don’t, we’re going to have make a change.”
Read said the problem wasn’t solely the city’s and wants local MLAs and MPs involved, particularly with a federal election approaching in November.
A shift by the federal Conservative government to the Housing First program resulted in the closure this year of the emergency shelter beds at Iron Horse Youth Safe House and the loss of 1.5 outreach worker positions.
“They’re not going to get away with all attention focused on the city. The question is, where are the funding providers,” Read asked.
“We need a national housing strategy in this country, there’s no question.”
Several questions from Cliff Avenue residents followed Read’s presentation.
“Get them off Cliff Avenue,” said one.
“We do know we need to move the camp off Cliff Avenue, so that’s something we’re working towards,” Read said at the end of the slide presentation.
Starting a permanent homeless camp on city property raises other issues, Read added, and that subsidized housing is a big incentive for someone living in a tent.
People living in that housing would be paying part of their income to do so.
Another person asked what happens if people refuse drug addiction treatment. Read agreed that drug addiction is a “demon” and suggested a one-for-one needle exchange, collecting used ones when new syringes are issued.
She also said homeless people can’t be blamed for local crime.
“I want to be very clear, that is not the case.”
Crime waves happen when criminals sweep through an area, she added.
However, part of the homeless solutions strategy included initiatives such as RCMP electronically tracking goods sold in pawn shops and metal yards, as well as the city knocking down derelict buildings.
Read said, as part of the presentation, that those living in the homeless camp on Cliff Avenue have requested they be referred to from now on as “street citizens.”
A woman who lives in the Cliff Avenue camp said people there don’t want to bother anybody.
“We are people too and sometimes we need help. We don’t want to be there.”