Another tent city set up in Duncan last fall, this time on private land. It, too, has been dismantled. Homelessness is a growing problem in the Cowichan Valley. (Citizen file)

Column: Modular housing program for homeless an option

Government program now in eight communities

I hope the province is considering involving the Cowichan Valley in its new program to tackle homelessness.

The government is investing $291 million to build 2,000 modular housing units over two years for people who are homeless, and more than $170 million over three years to provide 24/7 staffing and support services for these units.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing announced just before Christmas that eight municipalities across B.C. have already been accepted to join the program, and that approximately 1,000 self-contained modular units with personal kitchens and washrooms have been committed so far.

“There are too many people in British Columbia who are struggling to get by and don’t have a safe and secure place to go,” said Selina Robinson, minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

“These first 1,000 units demonstrate our government’s commitment to act quickly and make sure people not only have a place to call home, but that they are receiving the appropriate support they need to improve their daily lives.”

Considering the issues the Cowichan Valley has been having currently around homeless issues, including numerous tent communities and increasing calls for more services for our most disadvantaged citizens, I would think the Valley qualifies to be part of this innovative program.

It seems to fit much of the criteria that was explained to me recently by Keith Simmonds, a minister at the Duncan United Church and a member of the Cowichan Coalition to Address Homelessness and Affordable Housing.

Simmonds is an advocate of the “housing first” strategy to deal with the Valley’s homelessness issues.

The strategy dictates that anyone identified as homeless is offered a home without preconditions for sobriety and other self-improvement that keep many people on the streets.

The theory is that only after people are in stable housing can they begin to address their other challenges.

For skeptics of this approach, advocates like Simmonds point to the community of Medicine Hat in Alberta which announced in 2015 that it had succeeded in effectively ending homelessness in its community using the housing-first strategy.

But, unlike Medicine Hat, the Cowichan Valley has few housing units available for such a purpose, so bringing in mobile and modular units to help house the more than 100 people reported to be “absolutely homeless” in the Valley could do as much to solve the problem as in Medicine Hat.

It would be a great benefit for the Valley’s homeless, who are mostly from here, but I wonder what type of response it would get from the community.

After all, the units would have to be placed somewhere and they would likely be put close to neighbourhoods and businesses so their residents could have access to utilities and amenities.

But many neighbours, understandably, take great exception to having homeless people and their many issues close to their doorsteps.

That was readily apparent by the large turnout at a meeting in Duncan last month to discuss the concerns around a proposal to place a temporary daytime warming centre for the homeless in the field houses at the city’s McAdam Park, and the community’s negative reaction to the tent city that was set up in Charles Hoey Park last winter.

“Unfortunately, it seems OK for many in the Valley to just push these people out of their neighbourhoods when they show up in the hope that won’t surface again,” Simmonds told me.

It takes a whole community to come together to successfully deal with major issues like homelessness, and if local people rallied to have the Valley included in the government’s modular housing-unit program, Victoria may listen.

Maybe, at the end of the day, we can eliminate homelessness here like Medicine Hat did; if the will is there to do it.

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