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A closer look: New West embarks on plan to address homelessness

New Westminster’s new homelessness action strategy includes a five-year vision – and 46 actions – for addressing homelessness
Homelessness - file - stock photo
New Westminster has adopted a new strategy to address homelessness.

It’s estimated the number of homeless people in New West has tripled in the past few years – and the city is taking action to change that.

City council recently endorsed in principle a new New Westminster Homelessness Action Strategy, a five-year vision and plan to address homelessness and related issues in the city. Developed with the support of the New Westminster Homelessness Coalition Society, the Community Action Network (a local group that includes community members with lived and living experience of homelessness and poverty) and the University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning, the strategy includes 46 actions.

Emily Huang, the city’s affordable housing planning analyst, said the city’s previous homelessness action plan helped the city reduce the number of people who were homeless in New West by 53 per cent between 2008 and 2014.

“In between 2018 and 2020, new challenges emerged, and this resulted to reverse some of the gains made in addressing unsheltered homelessness,” she said. “These include, for example, a housing affordability crisis, an opioid epidemic, and the COVID-19 pandemic. And we also shouldn't forget that the extreme weather events impacted the unsheltered homeless as well.”

Work on a new homelessness strategy included input from a working group, which included representation from the city, businesses, faith-based and non-profit organizations, resident groups, senior government ministries and people with lived and living experience of homelessness.

John Stark, the city’s supervisor of community planning, said three UBC students assisted in all aspects of strategy development, including engagement and research that helped with the development of the 46 proposed actions. He said three areas emerged out of the research, with the first being the need for housing.

“The research found that stable and secure housing is essential to transitioning people out of the cycle of homelessness and poverty,” he said.

Stark said “systems change” was identified as another major issue.

“The research confirmed the importance of addressing the underlying causes, and not just the symptoms of homelessness, but taking a holistic and systematic, systemic perspective,” he explained. “And the third area was collaborative implementation. The research highlights that homelessness is a complex and multi-jurisdictional issue and requires all interests working together to address it, including the senior levels of government.”

Stark said the strategy also recognize the complex and multi-jurisdictional nature of homelessness, and the fact that not no one organization or level of government can have success on its own.

The 46 actions proposed in the strategy have been grouped into five categories:  coordination and partnership; shelter, housing and tenant supports; income, employment and financial literacy; services and supports; and communication engagement and involvement.

Because homelessness has a provincial and regional implication, Stark said the strategy calls on the city to advocate that the provincial government mandate that the municipalities have homelessness plans and that regional districts be given more responsibility for the coordination of such plans across municipalities, tying senior government funding decisions to municipal responsiveness.

“This recognizes that the city, to be effective in addressing homelessness, requires a cooperation of neighbouring municipalities and it also requires financial assistance from senior levels of government to address underlying root issues of homelessness,” he said.

Now that the new strategy has been developed, the City of New Westminster and the Homelessness Coalition Society will take primary responsibility for the implementation of the homelessness action strategy. A homelessness action strategy implementation working group will be established and will be co-chaired by the city and the coalition.

A report to council notes that staff will prepare an annual monitoring report that will summarize key indicators related to homelessness and will provide a progress update on implementing the annual action plan. That will include indicating, for each action item, whether it’s been fully, partially or not-at-all achieved.

At its July 11 meeting, council approved a staff recommendation to approve the homelessness action strategy in principle.

“The reason for this is because the proposed actions that involves the city, city resources have not been costed out and there has been no detailed work plan created yet,” Stark explained. “And so, prior to the implementation of any action requiring city resources, council will be provided with specific costs and work plan details and information, and council approval will be required.”

Council approves plan

Mayor Jonathan Cote said he was on council when it approved its previous homelessness strategy, which outlined goals and actions to take and had some really positive outcomes in the community.

“I recognize there's a lot of recommendations that really speak to what we can do locally, and I think that's an important component of that,” he said. “But … we also need to recognize there are a lot of other players and a lot of other things that are out of our control.”

Cote said he would like the city to develop a “strategic and coordinated” plan for how it will proceed with its plan for advocating to the provincial government to ensure it’s as effective as possible.

Coun. Jaimie McEvoy questioned when the next Metro Vancouver homeless count will take place, given that it’s “obviously out of date” with what’s occurred since the beginning of the pandemic.

Stark said the next one will be done in March 2023. He said the last count was done on March 3 and 4, 2020, just weeks before the pandemic.

“We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on homelessness. Individuals are more reluctant to bring people into their houses, so people who were couch surfing, living temporarily with family and friends didn't have that opportunity,” he said. “We also know that shelter capacity was significantly reduced.”

In September 2020, the city surveyed some local service providers, who reported that unsheltered homelessness had increased quite significantly. He said a homelessness needs assessment was done, but because it was based on information collected in March 2020, it’s being updated to reflect what’s occurred over the past two years.

“Based on that we had 52 unsheltered homeless individuals, and we know that number is likely three times, or more, than that right now,” he said.

McEvoy said he disagrees with cities that say homelessness isn’t in their jurisdiction and they don’t deal with homelessness.

“And I tell them, yes, you do: your fire department deals with homelessness. Your police deal with homelessness. Your bylaw officers deal with homelessness. Your planning department deals with homelessness. Your economic development office deals with homelessness,” he said. “It's a part of our work. The question is: will we be doing this in a thoughtful way and in a planned way, or will we be doing it in kind of an accidental ad-hoc way.”

Homelessness can’t be solved without fundamental changes from senior governments, McEvoy said.

“To end homelessness, we need drug treatment on demand. We need shelter with excess capacity, with surplus capacity. And we need a mental health system that's on par with our physical health system. …  Because homelessness is often a symptom of the things we have not achieved yet as a society,” he said.

Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said some cities have community members who strongly advocate against any kind of social housing and homelessness services/

“They're very well organized in putting the fear into the community,” he said. “You talk about having buy-in from senior governments but I believe the most important buy-in that we need is from surrounding municipalities.”

Puchmayr, who volunteers with a non-profit that provides housing and services for people, who are homeless, said some people are moving into New Westminster, presenting themselves as homeless but are here to take advantage of vulnerable individuals and to prey on people living in shelters.

“Some have been shown to be associated with gangs, with trafficking. They come into our city; they have a pocketful of death,” he said. “And we need to find a way of making sure that we're protecting those people that we have in our city in our shelters. So I just caution that not everybody that comes in here from other communities is coming here in good faith. Some are victimizing some of our folks that are suffering.”

What's in the strategy?

Here’s a sample of some of the 46 action items in the city’s new homelessness action strategy:

* The city continue to advance ‘social benefit’ zoning, such that social benefit land uses are permitted “as of right” – either across the city, in certain geographic areas, or within specific zones, and that it includes lands leased or owned by faith-based and non-profit organizations.

* The city advocate that BC Housing work to ensure that extreme weather and emergency shelter sites provide for the following needs, which have been identified as barriers to access: women, youth and children; couples; people with pet; and people with health, mobility or physical limitations.

* The city advocate that the Ministry of Children and Family Development fund a youth safe house in New West.

* The city advocate that the province increase income assistance and disability rates to better reflect the true cost of living, including for shelter, and that it advocate for expanded eligibility and amounts related to rent subsidy programs.

* The city advocate that the province fund a 24/7 drop-in and resource centre in the downtown, which would enhance service coordination and provide access to emergency food, information and referral services, laundry, shower and toilet facilities.

* The city and the Homeless Coalition Society commence work on a new food security action plan, which addresses increasing rates of food insecurity and escalating food prices, and that they access foundation and senior government funding to cover costs related to its development, implementation and sustainability.

* The city expand the availability of toilet facilities for the unsheltered, including through enhanced access to civic facilities, partnerships with faith-based and non-profit organizations, and the provision of freestanding, prefabricated toilets.

* The city advocate that Fraser Health fund expanded hours for the health contact centre, which provides witnessed consumption and other harm-reduction services.

* The city advocate that Fraser Health fund an inhalation site as part of the health contact centre or at another site in conjunction with the centre.

* The city advocate for senior government funding to support the operation of warming and cooling centres for the unsheltered during extreme weather events, and that this funding also cover the costs of retrofitting and equipping facilities for this purpose, such as the installation of air condition systems, the purchase of space heaters, etc.

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