North Shore councils called out on homelessness

All three North Shore municipal councils are being taken to task for a lack of action on addressing homelessness.

In a letter, the Canadian Mental Health Association’s North Shore executive director Julia Kaisla asks mayors Linda Buchanan, Mike Little and Mary-Ann Booth to be accountable.

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“The North Shore has been experiencing a growing housing crisis for 10 years. Despite task forces and committees to discuss actions, little has happened to provide the kind of housing we need,” she wrote. “The housing we lack more than any other: supported, low barrier, harm reduction-based housing.”

Kaisla said she was inspired to write the letter after seeing drastic measures taken by government in response to COVID-19, while non-profits and social service agencies have been left to deal with the pandemic and a worsening overdose crisis on their own.

“We got to a point where a lot of people are going to die,” Kaisla said.

While most North Shore residents have been able to stay comfortably home, people experiencing homelessness have been forced to stay in “overcrowded, decrepit, infested rooming houses, encampments, and in a temporary shelter filled to capacity.”

“Somehow, this combination of terrible has become the low-barrier housing solution in our community. It is not good enough,” Kaisla wrote. “What is most unsettling and harmful is our complacency with their death and poverty, and the privilege of the status quo that many are so desperate to maintain.”

The letter is co-signed by Paul Harmon, manager of the Lookout Housing and Health Society’s North Shore Housing Centre, and by Sandra Edelman, chair of the North Shore Homelessness Task Force.

There is provincial funding on the table right now, Kaisla said, but she hasn’t seen any of the North Shore’s local governments attempt to meet them halfway. The sticking points, she feels, are NIMBYism and unwillingness to put up municipally owned land.

“We have three municipalities that don’t want to be the only one giving up land or taking unpopular actions in some people’s eyes. It’s a lot of passing the buck,” she said.

Kaisla acknowledged the challenge of getting a neighbourhood to accept low-barrier housing but, she argued, the people in need of a home are already here.

“We’re asking for a compassionate response,” she said. “It is going to create safety for the whole community.”

City of North Vancouver Mayor Linda Buchanan said she understands Kaisla’s frustration because she feels it too.

“I feel extremely saddened that people are living in our communities who have no other options,” she said.

Kaisla’s letter was dated a week after the City of North Vancouver council adopted a motion from Buchanan calling for the creation of a new North Shore cross-jurisdictional working group to find short, medium- and long-term actions to prevent homelessness and offer people a way out of it.

“We are certainly motivated and dedicated and had taken action prior to receiving [the letter] and the three mayors including myself and my council are committed to doing that,” Buchanan said. “I don’t want a lot of time spent on researching this and that. This is very action oriented. We need to be moving forward. We need to be finding a site. We need to be co-ordinating that with health services,” Buchanan said.

Still, that will take some effort, so city council voted July 13 to reallocate $228,000 from other projects to temporarily hire someone to oversee the work. Buchanan said all levels of government need to be at the table and choosing which land “makes the most sense.” The province has been buying land and older hotels to provide housing elsewhere in the Lower Mainland, Buchanan said, and it’s time they did that on the North Shore too, she added.

West Vancouver council voted to join the working group on July 6.

“Really, this is going to force us to do some things that we should have done a long time ago,” said West Vancouver Mayor Mary-Ann Booth.

But, Booth added, solving homelessness is more complicated than finding available land in the short term, as the same people will also likely need wraparound health services that the province can’t download onto municipalities.

“We’ve got a big problem and it’s not just up to the municipalities to solve it. In fact, it’s not even our jurisdiction,” she said. “We don’t have that much land and we don’t have that much money, and so our position is that we’re willing to be part of the solution, but we don’t have the resources to be the solution.”

District of North Vancouver council has not yet met to vote on joining the working group.

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