Keith Simmonds wants the Cowichan Valley to be a community without homelessness.
Simmonds is a minister at the Duncan United Church and a member of the Cowichan Coalition to Address Homelessness and Affordable Housing.
He said he’s optimistic that the Valley can achieve the goal of eliminating its chronic homeless issues, if the will is there to do it, as it has been done before.
He pointed to the Alberta community of Medicine Hat which announced in 2015 that it had succeeded in effectively ending homelessness in its community.
Medicine Hat is one of a number of communities across the country that have developed the “housing first” strategy to deal with its 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.
The strategy has seen the number of homeless people in Medicine Hat plummet, at great cost savings to the public purse.
Statistics from Medicine Hat indicate that the average homeless person can cost taxpayers up to $120,000 a year in services, while it costs just about $20,000 a year to house someone and provide the necessary retention supports.
Simmonds acknowledged that, with the vacancy rate in the Valley currently just around one per cent, there are less housing units available here than in Medicine Hat to assist if the strategy were to be adopted locally.
“The coalition is looking at the overall housing situation in the Valley, but there’s a lot of people needing housing assistance,” he said.
“Fortunately, some local governments are beginning to try to help deal with the lack of affordable housing, including North Cowichan, which is changing its zoning to allow for more housing density.”
Simmonds said the coalition has also established a program in which an agreement can be reached with landlords that sees the management of their formerly homeless tenant taken over, and outreach workers visit and work with the tenant regularly.
He said among the first steps in dealing with homeless people is to diagnose their problems, whether it be fetal alcohol syndrome, PTSD, addictions or other issues, then apply to the applicable agencies or ministries for supports to help them.
But Simmonds acknowledged that support can be hard to get, so the coalition and other community minded groups continue to lobby hard for them.
“Personally, I think the homeless situation has gotten so bad in B.C. that the government should call a provincial emergency,” Simmonds said.
“People are being left to die on the streets or ending up in the hospital with pneumonia. If an emergency were declared, funds for emergency shelter and housing could be accessed the same as it was during the forest fires in the interior last summer.”
Simmonds said an apartment building burned down in the Valley a number of years ago and its approximately 180 tenants were put up in local hotels and motels by the province until other accommodations could be found.
“We could house all the homeless people in the Valley right now and give them the supports they need if the will was there to do it,” he said.
“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.”
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Simmonds said the coalition is developing a 10-year strategy to deal with homelessness in the Valley, but he thinks that is too long a period of time to try and address the issue.
Simmonds and his church are on the front lines in the fight against homelessness in the community, offering regular meals and other programs, and the work is getting harder as demands grow.
“My level of urgency is high,” he said.