Hopes raised for transitional housing

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan expressing support for a transitional housing facility in the city is a very positive step forward, say local advocates for the homeless.

In a recent interview for a column by NewsLeader editor Chris Bryan, Corrigan reiterated his opposition to emergency shelters, saying people who use them should be getting help elsewhere, such as addictions treatment, an institution like Riverview for the extremely mentally ill, or group homes.

The remainder could then be accommodated in transitional housing facilities, where social workers would refer them to support services and help them on their way to a more stable lifestyle. It's a model of housing Corrigan said he would be willing to accept in Burnaby.

"Shelter is one part of a larger continuum, all are important and transitional housing is approved by the city," said Wanda Mulholland of the Burnaby Task Force on Homelessness. "That's very positive."

Mulholland noted that when it was considering a proposal last year to turn the 401 Motor Inn on Boundary Road into transitional housing, Burnaby city hall developed a template on what would be needed for such a facility to be approved.

While the 401 Motor Inn plan was not given the go-ahead due to a lack of BC Housing funding, council decided the template could be used in other cases as it sets out requirements, the roles of different levels of government and the necessary processes for community consultation and rezoning.

The challenge, as always, is to find a site, she said.

"I have people talking to me about their concerns about housing all the time, daily," Mulholland said, noting homelessness is part of community concerns about the affordability of housing in general.

Emergency shelters generally provide overnight or short-term stays for people who are homeless and include staff that can refer them to resources in the community.

Transitional housing provides longer-term housing for two to three years, and staff who can assist them in making the transition to the next step. That next step can vary by person, from permanent housing to long-term housing where they still need support services.

The target group for transitional housing is those who may still be living "a life of chaos" with no money or health services, people who "just need a longer time to get their feet underneath them before they can look at permanent housing," said Karen O'Shannacery, executive director of the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, which operates Burnaby's extreme weather shelter.

But can a city have transitional housing without an emergency shelter as a point of entry first?

"Absolutely you can, but you're not going to resolve all the problems around the homeless," said O'Shannacery. "From our perspective you need a homeless plan that's actually going to address all the pieces if we're truly going to solve homelessness in Burnaby."

O'Shannacery said shelters also act as emergency centres for people who suddenly find themselves homeless, such as a senior who can't return to their two-storey home until they recover from a broken leg.

And without them as a place where homeless people can come to seek help, outreach workers, such as those from Progressive Housing Society in Burnaby, shoulder most of the burden of finding homeless people and getting them help. Without such a facility in Burnaby, currently the outreach workers try to convince such clients to go to emergency shelters in New Westminster or Vancouver, but often find they don't want to leave their own community where they have their own support network.

Having to go out and find homeless people is "very much a hit-or-miss situation and that's not beneficial for the people that are homeless, that's for sure," O'Shannacery said. "But it is a step in the right direction and a homeless plan for Burnaby includes a number of different types of services and solutions so Mayor Corrigan giving his full support and backing to filling one of the gaps, the transitional housing, that's very good and I applaud him for it."

Lookout continues to work with the province to find an appropriate site for a transitional housing facility in Burnaby and "we'll keep plugging away at it," she said.

"Solving homelessness involves everybody. The mayor is dead on talking about how the federal government has to be re-engaged with housing. Everybody is part of the solution."

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