Comment: Collaboration is needed to reach solutions

(Opinion editorial originally published in the Times Colonist on April 22, 2016)

The tent city at Victoria’s Law Courts Building has become a lightning rod in our community. We are seeing sides being picked, positions hardening, and increasing conflict and division.

I believe this is the time for just the opposite. Victoria is a city that succeeds best when we work collaboratively to reach reasonable long-term solutions. This is a time to come together.

Homelessness is a complex challenge that demands a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach. The courthouse lawn is a symptom of a problem that has been allowed to grow for years. The core of this issue is a lack of safe, affordable housing and supports for vulnerable citizens who need them most.

Temporary shelter beds don’t begin to address the number of homeless, and shelter beds are not homes. Winter shelter spaces are put in place, and when these temporary shelters close for the season, the people who relied on them are thrown back out on the street.

As someone who has lived in Victoria for most of my life, I have seen the challenges first hand. The mixed neighbourhoods of my childhood, with affordable housing for seniors and families and a range of houses for those with a range of incomes, are disappearing. Rental units aren’t being built. Social-housing lists are years long, and conflicts in our downtown and community parks are growing.

We are facing a housing crisis that is pitting neighbours against neighbours, and it is deepening divides in our community. It’s this lack of safe housing that has led the B.C. Supreme Court to rule that homeless people have the right to sleep outside when there is nowhere else to go.

To deal with homelessness, we need a long-term affordable housing strategy and proper supports. All orders of government — municipal, provincial and federal — have a role to play, as do the amazing and diverse not-for-profit agencies, faith groups, downtown businesses and citizens.

It will take all of us to turn this around. Our community is already working hard, with a solutions-oriented focus for the long-term. What could that include? Micro-housing, co-op housing and incentives for construction of affordable rental housing are important. So, too, are improving supports for people struggling with addiction and mental-health issues.

We need to develop good-neighbour agreements and provide clear channels for addressing challenges and concerns as they arise. All have a right to feel safe and supported in our communities.

We need tools for progress such as a provincewide poverty-reduction plan with clear and measurable targets, tighter regulations to prevent real-estate shadow flipping, and a tax on speculation. Revenues from any speculation tax should go directly to build affordable housing.

This isn’t easy work, and we won’t solve the problem overnight. No approach will satisfy everyone, but we need to move forward by listening respectfully to each other.

We must communicate and work collaboratively to replace the tent city with solutions that will address the needs of our vulnerable citizens and the community at large. I am confident we can do it together, and I am committed to that work.

Carole James is NDP MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill.