“Nothing About Us Without Us”
In his first large Town Hall Forum on Poverty and Homelessness, MLA Andrew Weaver welcomed over 200 people to the University of Victoria to participate in what was dubbed “The difficult conversation.” I was asked to moderate the Forum (a real privilege for me) and was impressed with the large number of people who took the time to attend. More important, with support and help from Reverend Al Tysick and his Dandelion Society, as well as from Andrew Weaver’s office, over forty homeless people were able to participate. As they entered the David Turpin Theatre, they proudly wore t-shirts with a poignant message that read “Nothing About Us Without Us,” thus setting a positive and respectful tone for the rest of the evening.
An experienced panel opened the conversation by each making a brief presentation, followed by questions and comments from the audience. Panel members Executive Director Andrew Wynne-Williams of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, Victoria City Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe, Aboriginal Outreach Worker and longtime advocate Bernice Kamano and professor Bruce Wallace of UVic’s School of Social Work, addressed openly and honestly such key issues as:
- Inadequate regional housing, both supportive and affordable.
- High cost of living in this region, for housing and food.
- Systemic poverty and the structural failure it creates.
- How the homeless are perceived and treated by us.
- Policing and mental health/addictions.
- Need for Aboriginal community outreach geared to the unique needs of Aboriginal people.
From the panel, the homeless and other audience members, we learned:
- The region is currently short 1,500 units to house the homeless in supportive and affordable housing.
- Rental housing in the region has increased in direct costs by 30% since 2006, to an average rent of $735.
- The minimum wage is frozen at $10 per hour, one of the lowest in the country.
- The homeless and addicted are falling through the cracks of our social safety net.
- In 1989, the federal government spent $115 per Canadian citizen on social housing — today it is just $60, a drop of nearly 50%.
- In the region, the cost of living is too high and the vacancy rate is too low.
- Police should not necessarily be the first responders to calls about the homeless on our streets.
- The homeless do not want charity; they want justice.
- Engage with the homeless so that they help guide development of social and housing policies.
- We need a three-pronged approach to solving homelessness — a compassionate response, upstream action and action.
Since this is a federal election year, panel members encouraged the audience to make poverty and homelessness key issues in the October 2015 election. “Let’s get this onto the national agenda,” suggested Andrew Wynne-Williams and everyone nodded. Others called for provincial and federal affordable housing policies and urged the audience to lobby politicians to bring legislation forward.
A number of people from Reverend Al’s group spoke passionately about their plight on the street, citing personal hardship as a result of major issues of lack of safe shelter, high unemployment, low wages and conflicts with local police authorities. Others from this group made some good suggestions and asked some searching questions about how we as communities can reach out with kindness and show that we care. “We are not invisible.”
This was a highly successful, informative session that brought out a wonderful cross-section of concerned citizens from all over Greater Victoria. Because issues of homelessness and poverty touch all of our communities across the region, I had hoped to see more local government representatives attending and joining Council members I saw from Esquimalt, the City of Victoria and Oak Bay. Maybe next time…
Yes, and there will be a next time. Andrew Weaver closed the evening with a suggestion to hold another Forum in downtown Victoria, one that will reach people where they actually live and cross political lines as well as municipal boundaries.
Thank you to MLA Andrew Weaver and his team, to panel members, to Reverend Al Tysick and to a wonderful audience, all of whom made my job as moderator a real pleasure. A special thank you to all the people who came with Reverend Al and had the courage to ask the tough questions and lead the difficult conversation.