Oct 15 2009
Is Burnaby passing the buck on helping the homeless?
Homeless people who sought shelter during cold, wet nights at St. Francis de Sales Church over the past three years didn’t just get a warm place to sleep.
They received compassion. Staff of Lookout Emergency Aid Society and church volunteers gave them someone to talk to.
On one occasion, they took a client to hospital and were with him when he received a diagnosis of cancer. Another client was fortunate enough to be at the shelter when she had a severe asthma attack, something paramedics said she wouldn’t have survived if she’d been alone on the street.
But with the church’s decision to close its doors to the extreme weather shelter on Dec. 1, Lookout is now in search of a new home to continue its work.
“Absolutely, we were quite surprised, shocked as a matter of fact,” said Lookout executive director Karen O’Shannacery of the church’s decision. Last year, the shelter was open on 47 nights, providing shelter beds 1,173 times.
Father Thomas Smith, who started his post at St. Francis de Sales in July, cited used needles and human excrement in the neighbourhood and concerns for the safety of children at its school next door as reasons for his decision.
They’re concerns Lookout hasn’t been able to address because they haven’t been given specifics, O’Shannacery said.
And while Lookout has “some irons in the fire,” finding a new location “is not an easy thing to do.”
After all, Lookout has been trying to find a site for a permanent shelter in Burnaby for years.
A few years ago, Lookout and Burnaby-based Progressive Housing Society, proposed building a 25-bed emergency shelter next door to 25 beds of transitional housing.
The project, and the provincial funding for it, fell through when a location couldn’t be found, said O’Shannacery, who is hopeful the money will be found when a site is secured.
She said Burnaby council has endorsed the former Willingdon youth detention centre site, a provincially-owned property. Lookout is seeking the province’s go-ahead on that site.
“It’s the process we’re in now. Unfortunately, what we’ve been told is there’s a recession and resources are few and far between, so that’s a problem.
“The municipality really has to take the lead with it and all levels of government—and I include the health authority in that—they all have to participate in creating this solution.”
She said virtually every other municipality has contributed land or forgiven much of the development fees they would otherwise charge.
But what Lookout is looking for most is for Burnaby council to advocate for a shelter and the necessary funding from senior governments, she said.
“You want to invest the time and resources in something that has some basic support, and that’s really where the municipality comes in.”
While a recent homeless count found about 85 people living on Burnaby streets, she noted such figures are generally considered an underestimate, so the true number is closer to 150 to 200 people. As for Burnaby’s reluctance so far to host such a shelter, she noted that such facilities are in Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond, New Westminster, Langley, North Vancouver and the Tri-Cities.
“So Burnaby is certainly fairly unique in this.
“The role of government is to look after people who have difficulty looking after themselves,” she said. “I believe each community has responsibility for looking after their own. People should not be forced out of Burnaby into the Downtown Eastside to access services.”
Housing Minister Rich Coleman did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. A ministry spokesperson said by email,
“We would consider funding for an emergency shelter in Burnaby if the city would provide a viable location.”
Raise the subject of homeless shelters with Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan and expect to have to brace yourself—it’s clearly a touchy subject.
Partly because he feels the city isn’t given enough credit for what it does do, such as securing 20 units of affordable rental housing in recent years by providing bonus density to developers. Or supporting the location of 100 treatment beds for people with mental illness and drug addictions on the Willingdon site.
But also because Burnaby fields criticism for not hosting an emergency shelter, the concept of which he completely disagrees with.
Giving people a bed indoors for the night, then pushing them out the door in the morning is “ridiculous social policy,” Corrigan said.
And apart from the disruption to communities it causes, problems with drugs, drinking and the mess of shopping carts, it takes attention away from the real issue, he said, which is why are these people on the street in the first place?
He blamed provincial government policies which have cut people off welfare, closed mental health institutions, increased the child poverty rate and led to the lowest minimum wage in Canada. The federal government is also at fault for ceasing to fund social housing 20 years ago.
Instead of emergency shelters, senior governments should be providing permanent housing, he said. It obviously rubs him the wrong way when people suggest Burnaby should give up land for a shelter. Corrigan cited the province’s sale of the 50-acre New Haven site in South Burnaby.
“They should sell their land for a profit to Amacon Developments and we should give them our land for social housing? ... They spent $900 million to buy a convention centre and they need me to donate land for an emergency shelter?”
Other cities have the right to give up land and money to make a shelter a reality, he said. But, for example, Vancouver is facing a $60-million shortfall and double-digit tax increases.
“Do you know why they’re facing those tax increases? Because they keep trying to do somebody else’s job.”
Social services organizations such as Lookout have become a growth industry, he said, “when in actuality, those organizations should be trying to put themselves out of business.”
Victoria should be responsible, he said.
“The province does not care one iota for these people. These are the flotsam and the jetsam in their system. And they don’t give a damn about these people except that they might make them look bad while the Olympics are here.”
• To suggest possible locations for Burnaby’s extreme weather shelter call Karen O’Shannacery at 604-255-0340 or email email@example.com.
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