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Ending homelessness still lacks political will: advocate

The annual homeless count shows about 1,600 people used an emergency shelter in Greater Victoria last year

Despite gains to end homelessness in the Capital Region, local housing needs can only be solved with greater political will, say local advocates.

Nearly 250 units of supportive housing and about 500 units of affordable housing have been built in Greater Victoria in the past five years, but the need still far outweighs available supply, said Andrew Wynn-Williams, executive director of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.

"We know we need at least another 250 units of supportive housing, maybe as many as 750 more units," Wynn-Williams said. "But what we've also found, if we look at all the data around vacancy rates, living wages and average rents, those are key contributors to homelessness.

"If something happens to you and you're on a lower income and you can't work for a few weeks, all of a sudden you're in crisis."

The best way to ensure at-risk people stay housed is through rental subsidies like the Streets to Homes program, where government pays for a part of market-rate rentals, said Don Evans, executive director of Our Place Society.

"It's the cheapest way to house people," he said. "The availability of bachelor suites under $700 in the last six years has been cut in half. Social assistance gives people $375 a month, so the only way we can only put them into affordable housing is with subsidies."

The annual homeless count shows about 1,600 people used an emergency shelter in Greater Victoria last year, while BC Housing has about 1,400 local applicants on its affordable housing wait list, a 300-person increase since 2009.

"And the homeless count doesn't even include people on the street, so they're missing the hardest to house," Evans said.

Evans sees many of the hardest to house in the kitchen of Our Place, where each day the society serves between 1,200-1,500 meals. His wish list includes an Island addictions treatment centre for adults funded by the government, like those available in Metro Vancouver.

"Right now, we have to send people to Vancouver. They go to treatment there and have to come back here," he said. "The people we deal with don't have the money to go to the private centres (on the Island)."

The coalition's annual report, released this month, also shows more than 20,000 people used food banks last year in the Capital Region, a trend expected to continue as the living wage of $18.73 per hour has risen more than 14 per cent in the past seven years,

Wynn-Williams said a Capital Region survey shows residents are onboard with greater government spending on homelessness, but that hasn't yet translated into political will.

"We're on the right track. We need just need to keep the pressure on," he said.