Much has been said about the things that divide us – the federal election rekindled talk of western alienation and in B.C. the focus is on an urban/rural split.
That said, there is one thing we can agree on – the growing pervasiveness of homelessness.
Once an issue confined to the core of major cities, the problem is evident now in almost any community.
Just how bad it has become was revealed in the first concerted count done last year. The province-wide survey, conducted by volunteers in nearly 25 communities, found 7,655 people with no secure place to call home.
Certainly, the majority were in Metro Vancouver but their numbers were also found in communities as diverse as Fort St. John, Cranbrook, Comox Valley, and even Salt Spring Island.
British Columbia is not unique – the number of homeless in the Seattle region, for example, is estimated at 12,000. Nationwide, it is believed 30,000 people won’t have a good place to sleep tonight.
Of course, we don’t need statistics to tell us there is a problem – a walk through any town or city reveals just how bad it has become. That evidence sparks two reactions, namely anger and frustration.
The anger was evident in Kelowna a couple of weeks ago. Business owner Raegan Hall said she and other businesses were at risk of being driven out of the downtown because of the growing number of homeless people.
“If this homeless and drug-infested population does not get handled swiftly and properly,” she wrote to that city’s downtown business association, “our once vibrant downtown is going to become a ghost town overrun with what looks to me like a zombie apocalypse.”
That anger is echoed in many communities. Business owners are tired of cleaning up garbage and debris every morning before they open. They’re tired of their employees feeling threatened. They’re tired of paying for private security or watching their customer base shrink.
And it’s not just business owners who are angry. Residents too are concerned their parks and playgrounds are becoming makeshift camps.
The first casualty of anger is empathy, which becomes evident at public meetings about proposed shelters, or in online discussions about the issue.
While it would be easy to give way to that frustration, efforts are being made to address the situation.
Where once poverty and addiction were seen as moral failings that society had no responsibility to support, we’re seeing a greater appetite for intervention (if for no other reason than economic). Municipal governments, which rightly said social support was beyond their purview, are playing a greater part in crafting solutions.
The federal government is promising to recommit to its role – largely abandoned since the 1990s – of providing support for affordable housing.
Meanwhile the provincial government is moving forward on its plan to create 2,700 supportive housing units – nearly 1,500 have already been built as part of the government’s 10-year commitment.
Of course, none of this will fix the problem overnight. How we got to this situation is a complex combination of a number of factors: housing affordability, inadequate support for mental health, a crisis in substance dependency and longtime governmental neglect.
But it won’t be made any better if we abandon the businesses struggling to survive in our downtowns (when was the last time Amazon supported your local minor league team?), or surrender to the anger that dehumanizes and vilifies people because of their circumstances.
That’s something we should all agree on.
– Greg Knill is a columnist and former Black Press editor