Homeless issues heat up as cold weather returns

Only about 30 per cent of those who are currently homeless have drug addictions

There seems to be no end to the issues around homelessness in the Cowichan Valley.

The latest effort to set up an emergency shelter for women in the old Duncan Elementary School on Cairnsmore Street was denied by city council earlier this week after many in that neighbourhood expressed their concerns at Monday’s meeting.

Last year, an extreme weather shelter for women that was planned for the old Charles Hoey school in Duncan was also nixed after neighbours raised issues about it.

Council did commit to having staff take a look at setting up some sort of mobile emergency shelter for women in the community after rejecting the plan for a shelter on Cairnsmore Street, but even if those plans are given a green light to move forward, some question just how effective such a project would be.

Homelessness is a growing social issue that is impacting not just Duncan and the Cowichan Valley, but the Island, the province and the rest of the country as well.

With skyrocketing rents and an ongoing affordable housing shortage, more and more people who you wouldn’t have considered as a candidate for being homeless are being forced onto the streets and the great outdoors these days.

Of course, the ongoing opioid crisis is also playing a role, but statistics show that only about 30 per cent of those who are currently homeless have drug addictions.

But I can certainly understand the concerns of the neighbours of sites where shelters are planned.

They are, of course, concerned about the safety of their families, damage to their properties and lowered property values with a homeless shelter in operation next door or down the street.

Most of those opposed to setting up shelters in their neighbourhoods that I have talked to are sympathetic to the plight of the homeless, but want the problem dealt with far away from their neighbourhoods.

But Keith Simmonds, a minister at Duncan United Church and a member of the Cowichan Coalition to Address Homelessness and Affordable Housing, told me that keeping shelters out of neighbourhoods doesn’t make the problem go away.

In fact, it just makes it worse.

Simmonds said if homeless people in the Valley have nowhere to go, they will turn up someplace as the weather worsens in efforts to stay warm and dry; including people’s sheds, crawl spaces and porches.

As for the consideration of having a mobile shelter in the Valley, Simmonds said he commends Duncan’s council for at least looking for alternatives, but he wonders how successful the program would be.

He said he can see how such an initiative would be attractive from council’s point of view as they could set it up in a community for a few days, and when the neighbours eventually demand it be moved, they can just keep relocating around the city.

“It would be better than having these people outside, but it’s not better than what was planned with the shelter on Cairnsmore Street,” Simmonds told me.

“Many of the neighbours there say they don’t want their children exposed to people who are at homeless shelters, but I have to ask what kind of world do they want their children to grow up in if they aren’t willing to help those in need around them?”

Interesting thoughts from an interesting man.

(Robert Barron is a reporter with the Cowichan Valley Citizen. He can be reached at Robert.Barron@cowichanvalleycitizen.com).