While some cities are reluctant to tackle housing, New Westminster isn’t one of them.
New Westminster city council has endorsed a proposed pilot project that would create a temporary housing and social services coordinator position. The coordinator would respond to calls to the city about homelessness, housing and other social issues, including tenant displacement or evictions.
“It is an outreach worker for the larger community, but it is to field those inquiries that are coming to the city,” said John Stark, the city’s acting planning director. “This individual would be embedded in the city and be familiar with different resources available in the city and in the community, and also identify how as a city we can develop policies, programs and services which can better meet those needs.”
City employees in various departments regularly deal with daily inquiries about homelessness and housing, food insecurity, hoarding, mental health and substance use. A report to council notes the inquiries require significant staff resources to address, as they are often complex, involved and time consuming.
Council also directed staff to explore possible funding sources for the proposal, including the provincial government, and to approach neighbouring municipalities to determine if there’s any interest in participating in the proposed pilot project.
The city estimates the cost would be about $45,000 for a half-time position and about $90,000 for a full-time position for one year, with the full-time position only being warranted if it served two municipalities.
Stark said the proposed pilot project isn’t viewed as a city-funded initiative, but the city would provide in-kind services such as administrative support, office space and supplies. He said the idea is to approach senior levels of government or foundations for funding of a pilot project, as it may have transferability to other municipalities.
While housing is typically work done by senior governments, Stark said New Westminster has taken an active role on issues like renovictions.
“We are taking on a lot of this responsibility, which you could say is very good customer service but it’s also very time consuming. In a lot of these cases, once someone has called and you are receptive and you are trying to assist, that individual will call you back on numerous occasions until their needs have been addressed,” he said. “Planning staff, and people in other departments, we just don’t have that time. And in some cases, we don’t have those skills.”
A staff report states that the increase in homelessness and affordability issues in New Westminster, as well as renovictions that have displaced at least 200 residents, come at the same time there have been “significant funding cuts” to housing outreach, referral and advocacy programs in New Westminster, resulting in more inquiries to city hall.
“We need to determine how we are going to handle that deliberately, rather than in an accidental way,” said Coun. Jaimie McEvoy. “It is the fairest thing for the people seeking help and the fairest thing for staff.”
Coun. Patrick Johnstone believes the city has a role to play in connecting people in crisis to community resources.
“It’s support to people who live in our community,” he said. “We have lost more than $300,000 in funding for this type of support in senior government cuts in the last few years.”