While walking down Port Alberni’s streets doesn’t present the same grim picture of homelessness as a bigger city’s streets would, that doesn’t mean everyone has a safe and permanent place to live.
Instead, Port Alberni’s homelessness is in many ways typical of rural communities, said Amanda Ridgway, a consultant with IGNITE Consultancy. Ridgway was hired by the Alberni Valley Community Stakeholders Initiative to End Homeless (AVCSI) to rewrite the 2007 plan to end homelessness.
“Rural homelessness presents itself quite differently than urban homelessness in that there’s less visible homelessness, people literally out on the streets, and more hidden homeless, people who are staying with friends or couch surfing.”
The last two factors are common in smaller communities, where everyone knows everyone and most people are unwilling to let a friend or even an acquaintance spend a night in the cold.
“Smaller communities tend to be able to demonstrate more success because they’re tight-knit. Often smaller communities may not have the financial resources but they have more of the community resources in terms of people willing to look after their neighbour.”
That closeness in the community, combined with a proactive attitude and a limited geographical area key ending homelessness in Port Alberni.
According to Ridgway, Port Alberni’s limited land means is a positive factor in the fight to end homelessness.
“You don’t have as much of that massive sprawl.”
Between the Alberni Summit—locally known as the Hump—and Hwy. 4 on the way to Tofino, there’s a hard, mountainous limit to how far the city can expand.
“The potential to end homelessness is actually quite a valid concept,” Ridgway said.
It also helps that Port Alberni’s homeless are really that: theirs.
“People we’re identifying as homeless in Port Alberni actually belong to Port Alberni. They’ve either residents or they have family or connections in Port Alberni. They’re not strangers, they’re family, friends, neighbours.”
While the closeness of the community is a positive factor, Ridgway admitted that the lack of visible ‘on the street’ homeless can make it hard to see the negative impacts of the homelessness that is present in Port Alberni.
“Often the public may not recognize the real impact of housing challenges on people and may not recognize the impact on the community and it’s wellbeing as a whole.”
According to Ridgway, “anyone who is precariously housed” cannot function at any full complete capacity.
“You are functioning at this survival level.”
The constant stress of always looking for a new place to stay makes it difficult for individuals to work on any other issues in their lives.
“If anyone took the time and just thought about what that would be like, to not have a home and to constantly shift from week to week to week and to ask their friends or family to help them out… it’s a very degrading experience.”
For those who do manage to get into homes of their own, the lack of suitable housing makes the lure of slum landlords all the more powerful.
“It creates a lot of conflict for practitioners who have to refer [individuals] to houses that they know are unsafe.”
However, there are tools at a city’s disposal.
Maintenance bylaws are a common tool but with only one bylaw officer with too many cases to keep up with, more bylaws aren’t a realistic option for Port Alberni.
However, according to a SPARC BC report titled Municipal Strategies to Address Homelessness in British Columbia, there are other options.
Secondary suites, which the city legalized this past summer, have been shown to be an effective method of reducing homelessness.
According to city planner Scott Smith, “in March of 2014, the new zoning bylaw allowed secondary suites in our single family area” for new developments.
In the fall, the city “came up with a process to authorize existing secondary suites.”
Smith said that the city has only received a few applications to authorize existing secondary suites.
According to the SPARC BC report, secondary suites are an easy and inexpensive way for municipalities to provide more housing units. More housing units are key to eradicating homelessness in Port Alberni, where a multitude of buildings have burned down or been condemned or demolished since the 2007 plan to end homelessness.
Two other tools in the report are density bonus and conversion control policies.
Density bonusing allows developers to “build additional dwelling units beyond the zoning limits in exchange for providing affordable units.”
While city does have density bonusing provisions built into its zoning bylaw, Smith said that “in the 14 years I’ve been here, no developer has applied to even consider density bonusing.”
Conversion control policies stop or put conditions upon switching rental units to a different usage, particularly stratifying apartments to make condominiums.
Smith said that that rarely happens in Port Alberni.
“We had a couple buildings apply to stratify several years ago but we haven’t had anything recently.,” while conversion of apartments to non-housing units does not happen at all.
Most municipalities who make use of conversion control don’t completely ban converting rental suites to other uses but restrict them when “rental vacancies dip below a certain rate.”
According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the apartment vacancy rate in October 2014 was 5.6 per cent, down from 7.7 the year prior. But despite having housing available, 9.4 per cent of households are considered to me be in core housing need, defined by CMHC as spending “30% or more of total before-tax income to pay the median rent of alternative local housing that is acceptable.”
Further, because CMHC considers non-family households led by 15-29 attending school full time to be in a “transitional stage of life and therefore not in core housing need,” the number could be somewhat higher.
However, Ridgway remains positive, saying that Port Alberni is ahead of its time on fighting homelessness.
“They seem to sort of have it together with collaborative efforts, getting their partnerships in place and being quite proactive, which can be unusual at times.”
The collaborative efforts will continue with a workshop on Thursday, March 5 in the Fir Room at Echo Centre. Sessions will run from 3-5 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. and the public is encouraged to attend and give their input.