COLUMN: Burnaby must do more for the homeless

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Burnaby does a great job helping to provide social housing.

For most people of modest means, living with a disability, elderly—or all three—there is a decent array of options. It could always be better, of course, but in general this city's got it covered.

And the City of Burnaby deserves credit for working with developers, the province, Ottawa and local non-profit agencies to help that happen.

But where it falls short is with the city's most vulnerable people. The homeless.

As many will know, there is no permanent shelter for the homeless in this rapidly growing city of 225,000 people. Vancouver, New West, Surrey, Langley, Maple Ridge and the North Shore all have shelters, but not Burnaby.

The only option is during a few months of the year when a local church opens its doors and staff from the Lookout Emergency Services Society operate an extreme weather shelter. And it's only open on nights when weather is severe enough that it can create a higher health risk to homeless people.

So for the rest of the year in Burnaby people can be found sleeping in Central Park, tenting in the forest behind Discovery Park, and using the washrooms at the McGill branch as though they are their private bathroom facilities.

Or they're forced to go to Vancouver. Or New West, or one of the growing host of cities working to fill this vital piece of the housing continuum. The Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy website shows more than two dozen shelters for the homeless in Vancouver, depending upon the time of year. Many are year-round. In New Westminster, a city of 60,000, there are four.

Burnaby doesn't do permanent shelters.

Why? To prove a point?

Mayor Derek Corrigan says housing is not a municipal responsibility, and under his leadership the city has stood its ground on the issue.

In interviews, he's called the practice of giving people a bed indoors for the night, then pushing them out the door in the morning “ridiculous social policy," that distracts from dealing with the core issues of why these people are on the street in the first place.

He points to provincial government policies that have cut people off welfare, closed mental health institutions and increased the child poverty rate. He points to the fact that until recently, B.C. had the lowest minimum wage in Canada.

And he's also criticized Ottawa for all-but ceasing to fund social housing 20 years ago.

And those are all fair comments. They really are.

But in the '90s when Ottawa drastically reduced funds for health care, social programs and infrastructure did the provinces and cities just hold the line on everything to make a point? No, because some things are essential.

Back in 2006, the provincial government put a call out to cities. They said if you put up a piece of land and waive the development costs, we'll build and fund new housing for the homeless.

Eight cities responded. Vancouver put up 14 sites. Cities such as Surrey, Maple Ridge, Abbotsford and Kelowna also put up sites.

Where was Burnaby?

Why is a city with almost $600 million in reserves—one of the richest municipalities in Canada—doing nothing?

Corrigan says it's a slippery slope: Look at Vancouver's rising property taxes, he says—aren't they exceeding their mandate at residents' expense?

That's a red herring. Burnaby can afford to take the risk. It can make a start by offering a single piece of land, maybe even with a building on it. Near Metrotown, at the edge of an industrial area, near the SkyTrain line.

It's time for a permanent shelter in Burnaby.

This city must do its part.

• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.

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