When I first moved from the big city of Burnaby to small town Maple Ridge some 20 years ago, there was only one visible homeless person and his name is ‘Pete the Bum.’ Not such a politically correct nickname but two decades ago, it didn’t seem so derogatory.
Wearing tattered clothing, the gentle giant was and still is a fixture in Maple Ridge. Everyone knows him or sees him regularly, and many have tried to help him into housing. But while it’s rumoured he has a place to go, he spends most of his nights — rain or shine — pushing his wheelchair up and down Lougheed Highway or hanging out at the 7-Eleven.
Why am I talking so much about Pete? Because, so much has changed in the landscapes of human suffering in suburbias dotting Metro Vancouver. Big cities have had homelessness issues since their inceptions, Vancouver still having world-wide notoriety for the indignities happening to the people in the Downtown Eastside.
But while Pete surely wasn’t the only person living on the streets — I’m sure there were others — it was a very small population, and manageable from a municipal, health and policing perspective.
Fast forward to 2016, and the number one issue facing almost every municipality in B.C. is homelessness. Shelters, mental health teams, outreach workers, social services, hospitals, policing, courts and jails are overwhelmed and overburdened with this ever-growing issue.
The cost of homelessness on the taxpayer is enormous and ballooning every day. Our emergency responders are dealing with mental health issues, overdoses and drug-induced psychosis regularly. People with mental health issues are finding shelter in a jail cell instead of getting help in a hospital. It’s heartbreaking and it’s taking an emotional toll on society.
I think it’s safe to say if you even have half a heart, seeing people sleeping on the streets or pushing their possessions around town, especially through the driving rain, is a pretty unbearable sight. These are human beings, who have families and feelings.
This is a complex issue without a permanent solution. And that is what is scary. Every municipality has tried an approach to helping but not one has ended or seriously reduced homelessness. Committees have been struck, meetings have taken place, shelters have been built, and continue to be built, hundreds of millions of dollars have been contributed by governments and continue to. But the provincial government has been a complete failure on this issue, leaving each city to deal with it on their own.
There needs to be a provincial strategy. Municipalities should not be burdened to come up with their own formula to a solution they have no training or experience with. This patchwork of supports and help for the homeless is not working. Enough with throwing a few dollars at each city.
Every community is at its wits-end. A provincial strategy will be costly in the short term but it’s the only option now.