Last Wednesday’s forum on homelessness in Langley City could easily have gone very differently than it did.
The event, hosted by MLA Mary Polak, drew more than 200 people to the Coast Hotel, many of whom are residents of the neighbourhood where a homeless camp has been located since last spring.
It was issues associated with this camp, among other factors, that led to the community meeting. With representatives of the City, the province, the federal government and the police seated in front of them, it would have been easy for those residents to use the forum as an opportunity to lash out in anger and frustration.
What happened instead was actually pretty inspiring.
Several people did, of course, offer some insight into what life is like since the camp was erected. The panel heard accounts of break-ins and other undesirable behaviour, of course.
But even these were presented in a respectful manner.
The remainder of the meeting offered a range of perspectives on the issue — from the point of view of homeless people themselves, to family members of people with mental illness and those who work on the front line in the social services — as well as some thoughts on what could be done about it.
What the assembled group heard from speakers ranged from the heartbreaking to the alarming.
A Langley resident who works on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, told the panel that he is seeing an increasing number of people who are homeless simply because they cannot afford a place to live. They don’t have addiction or mental health issues, they’re not physically disabled and unable to work. In fact, many of them have jobs, but their low wages make it impossible to find a place to rent.
The scariest part, he said, is that their circumstances are leading to mental health problems where there weren’t any previously.
Then there was the woman who told the panel that she fears she will soon be homeless because her low-income building has been sold for development. The group that operates it simply couldn’t afford upkeep on the building at $375 per unit — the maximum monthly shelter allowance for a singler person on assistance.
The presence of all three levels of government and police at one table meant that no one member could simply pass the buck, saying the solution rested with another jurisdiction.
I would argue the City is doing what it can, but the scope of the problem has grown beyond what a municipality of 26,000 people can reasonably be expected to handle on its own.
It’s time for the provincial and federal governments to step up in a meaningful way. Canada is a wealthy country and I can’t help feeling that we can do better than this. Granted, it’s not just about money, but nothing else can happen until that crucial piece of the puzzle is in place. Homelessness is a huge and incredibly complex problem and the solutions won’t be easy to find.
As Polak remarked at the close of the forum, there is only way to eat an elephant, and that is one bite at a time.
Getting everyone to the table is a good first step.