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Richmond's social service agencies send S.O.S to city hall

Housing coordinator and land needed

Fifty-six year-old Michael Novacluse is a Richmondite to his core. If he could have been born in Richmond he would have, but the hospital didn’t exist at the time.

“My dad rushed my mom over the bridge with me falling out,” he quipped.

Novacluse, who graduated from Richmond High, recalls ATV off-roading at Garry Point Park, shooting rodents at the east Richmond dump — which was operated by his father — and racing cars on the township’s rural back streets. He was a young, hard worker, helping his dad since the age of 10, he says. Once he graduated from high school, he carved out a career driving a truck. 

Needless to say, he’s seen Richmond turn from a typical blue-collar farming community to a sprawling middle-class suburb and now to a wealthy, bustling city. Wealthy on the outside, at least.

Beneath the shimmering skyline of new apartment buildings being fawned over, by those looking to get their foot in the door of Richmond’s highly speculative real estate market, rests a few remaining alleys and corners where Novacluse now sleeps, after becoming homeless about three years ago when he was crippled as a result of being hit by a car in two separate incidents.

Despite earning a modest wage, a bad divorce and addiction to alcohol left him with little wiggle room to bounce back when he was unable to work. His $612 monthly disability cheque does next to nothing for his situation, he says. There are now no places to live in Richmond and if there is a vacancy, the average rent is too expensive, at just over $1,000 for a one-bedroom unit, according to various estimates.

Richmond's social service agencies send S.O.S to city hall_2
Executive director of Chimo Community Services Diane Sugars (left), pictured with anti-poverty advocates, says the City of Richmond needs to hire a housing coordinator and contract a non-profit housing provider in order for the city’s social service agencies to do their jobs properly in light of a growing homelessness problem. She also wants support from city council to advocate for more provincial funding. Photo by Graeme Wood/Richmond News.

Novacluse sleeps in a concrete stairwell, behind three trash bins, in downtown Richmond. His wheelchair was recently stolen.

“It takes me an hour to get dressed,” he said.

Chimo Community Services outreach worker Hugh Freiberg says efforts to find Novacluse a place to live that’s wheelchair accessible have come up short. 

“It’s bad. This is really bad,” said Freiberg.

On Monday, Novacluse mustered up the courage to wheel himself into city council chambers with a host of local social service agencies or groups demanding councillors back their plan for a municipal housing coordinator and more money and support from all levels of government.

“I would like to tell them to get more affordable rent,” said Novacluse. 

An exchange between Diane Sugars, executive director of Chimo, De Whalen, co-chair of the Richmond Poverty Response Committee, and some members of council highlighted the financial and political roadblocks the various agencies are facing.

At the core of Sugars’ argument is the fact several agencies are being forced into the role of housing provider, instead of focusing on their core functions. 

“We are not a housing provider. We provide a crisis line and we deal with domestic violence. And yet this has fallen on our lap,” Sugars told council.

“In the past few weeks it has become overwhelming. It is common for us to hear from families that their (rental) house has been sold and they haven’t been able to locate anywhere to move to,” she said.

Notably, Chimo set up a program to house people in homes slated for demolition. The program is successful, Sugars says, but it has led to other agencies pointing destitute people to them. Chimo staff are burned out.

“There’s nobody here who has a central mandate to build and purchase affordable housing for people. It doesn’t exist,” said Sugars, noting other regional municipalities have actively advocated for and helped fund such non-profit resources.

“The problem keeps flooding in,” she said.

Richmond’s vacancy rate is 0.3 per cent. 

By several accounts, agencies appear to be in a tail spin, scrambling to help those in severe poverty. Richmond has no shelter for homeless women and its only shelter for men, run by the Salvation Army, needs to find a new location, as its house has been sold to a developer. St. Alban Anglican Church had to shut down the city’s only drop-in centre for homeless people after staff and volunteers became inundated with demand while falling short of funds.

Church volunteer Dianne Woodhouse has asked the city to provide a city-owned place to hand out lunches — in light of the drop-in centre closure — while Turning Point Recovery Society finds a place to set up a new one, with a $300,000 grant (total, for thee years) from the provincial government.

Those efforts have failed, said Woodhouse, who asked to use Brighouse Pavillion concession stand each Friday at noon.

Woodhouse said the church was told the concession was booked, although on most days it doesn’t appear that way, she noted.

Meanwhile, council has been cautious to spend more money on social causes for fear of provincial “downloading” of housing responsibilities.

“I’m fully sympathetic to what you are saying, but what about the province? How much have you spoken to the province on these issues?” Mayor Malcolm Brodie asked Sugars, who replied that she and others have outlined their problems to local MLAs (Richmond Centre MLA Teresa Wat was unavailable for comment).

Sugars said MLA Linda Reid was a “friend of Chimo.”

In addition to efforts to lobby MLAs, Sugars is asking the city for moral support, as well as money for a housing coordinator.

“I’m not taking away anything from what we plan to do. But in a sense, aren’t we letting the province off the hook and abdicate the responsibility yet again?” asked Brodie.

“Let’s not let the province off the hook, but come together as a group and stronger voice and say, ‘This has to stop,’” Sugars responded.

“We aren’t being good neighbours when we’re sending people elsewhere,” she said.

Excluding “couch surfers,” Freiberg, who works the city’s streets handing out whatever he can, estimates there are 130 known homeless people in Richmond, who find their way into bushes and under bridges, or even Coun. Harold Steves’ backyard.

One person recently offered Steves $300 to camp out. 

“I wish I could have helped but, as a councillor, I can’t. I did tell him where he could go and no one would find him,” said Steves.

Coun. Chak Au has long advocated for increases to municipal grants for social service agencies.

“I understand we can’t do the work of the province, but maybe we can help temporarily,” Au told the Richmond News.

On Monday, Coun. Carol Day suggested the agencies stage protests, going so far as to suggest having homeless people show up at the hospital en masse.

“We need a way to ‘upload’ the problem to the province,” said Day.

Meanwhile, Whalen said there are rumours that a tent city could be erected on city hall grounds to generate attention.

Last year, council did effectively increase such grants, but about $550,000 of new money from casino revenues presently sits in a reserve account as the city irons out new allocation procedures (which it said would be done in the first quarter of 2016).

In February 2015, only Day and Au voted to sidestep the grants policy to give St.Alban an extra $10,000.

Coun. Alexa Loo considers a tent city protest counterproductive but has repeatedly suggested providing land for agencies. She said there may be some “sticker shock” up front, but overall savings to taxpayers will be had in the community if the hospital sees fewer visits from homeless and/or drug addicted residents. 

“I think partnering with the right levels of government by providing land is something we should look at. That’s how other municipalities are doing it,” said Loo.

Brodie suggested it may be harder than it looks to find and finance the land. On Monday, council deferred the requests to city staff.

Sugars said land is vital, if not just for a drop-in centre.

“If I hear one more time someone say, ‘There’s no housing,’ you can’t say that. You have to create it. Vancouver is creating it,” said Sugars.

Whalen said the city’s endeavour to build a 129-unit affordable rental housing apartment (for vulnerable citizens) and centre for social service agencies, named Storeys, on Anderson Road, is a model that bears repeating.

That’s because the presently under-construction Storeys is already spoken for, she said, and Sugars added that without new spaces, it could fall into ruin over the course of years, especially if the agencies don’t have adequate funding.

Development charges paid for Storeys and the city recently increased such charges.

If a homeless person comes off the bus in Richmond, where will he/she go in one day? 

-Canada Line station to check out “the action”.
-The library to read.
-The mall to avoid weather.
-Hours at a fast food restaurant for a coffee.
-Drop-in centre (closed)
-Shelter (full)
-An alley, bush or bridge to sleep in or under.