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'Unthinkable': homelessness hits those with developmental disabilities

Vancouver Island Free Daily - 12/1/2023

Life has not been easy for Jonathon and Emerson Harry, who are cousins and members of Cowichan Tribes, as they struggle with housing, employment and other issues that have resulted from their developmental disabilities.

Jonathon is currently living at the Warmland shelter after spending many months surviving in a tent in the woods.

He was staying at a motel in Duncan before he was forced to move out when the facility went through renovations last spring and then raised rents too much for him to afford.

Jonathon said he was paying $1,100 a month to stay at the motel, which was already hard for him as he receives only $1,525 a month from the province to cover all his expenses, so the increase in rent at the motel was well outside of his price range.

He has spent his life dealing with fetal alcohol and attention deficit disorders which makes it hard for him to find and keep jobs, and he is now facing the possibility of becoming unhoused as well.

Emerson spent almost a year staying at Warmland before recently moving into a trailer, but his developmental disabilities have also made it difficult for him to find and keep a job and a roof over his head, and he fears for his future.

"I used to clean yards and other work like that when I lived on the reserve," he said.

"I'm trying to find better employment and get my life moving forward, but it's hard."

Both Jonathon and Emerson are clients at the Clements Centre for Families, which offers programs and services for those with developmental disabilities and their families.

Clements Centre's executive director Dominic Rockall said the centre currently has seven people on its caseload who are unhoused, and six more that could be unhoused at any time.

He said that would have been unthinkable even five years ago.

"I don't know the particulars for other B.C. agencies like ours, with all of us serving clients who once upon a time in B.C. were housed first in large institutions and later in small group homes," Rockall said.

"There used to be subsidized housing available in the 1960s and 1970s, but then senior levels of government changed their policies and instead offered tax breaks for the private market to provide social housing, but that hasn't worked."

Rockall said the Cowichan Valley is not alone in seeing this concerning rise in homelessness among a uniquely challenged and highly vulnerable group of people.

"People with developmental disabilities absolutely must be well supported and safely housed in B.C.," he said.

Rockall said the Crown corporation responsible for services to people with developmental disabilities in the province is Community Living BC, but the options the organization has for housing don't meet the needs of all the people who qualify for CLBC's services.

"We believe that the government, along with Crown corporations CLBC and BC Housing, simply must provide a solid and sufficiently resourced foundation of public support for people living with developmental disabilities," he said.

"There are some projects and developments that are suited to our needs, including [BC Housing's 48-unit supportive housing project on White Road in Duncan that is under construction, and BC Housing's The Village site for the unhoused on Trunk Road] but we need more of them."

Rockall said the problem is not just one for the province and the CLBC to address, nor is it just about having enough money to cover the rent.

He said that even when Clements' clients can afford rent, they are often coming up against stigma, stereotyping and prejudice among private-market landlords.

"We know we have the necessary skills, resources and commitment in our community to help address the issues that we're seeing for people with developmental disabilities, but that cannot happen when ignorance and stereotyping shut people out," Rockall said.

"B.C. promises inclusion for people with developmental disabilities. Unfortunately, that is not the case for those who fall through the cracks of the CLBC supports and who are pre-judged by private landlords who haven't even met them yet. Homelessness simply can't ever be allowed to become a tolerated outcome for people with developmental disabilities."

Leslie Welin, board chair at the Clement's centre, added that the centre began when the community stood up and supported creating a home when some people were against a residence for people with developmental disabilities in their neighbourhood.

She said it's time for the community to stand up again.

"The homeless crisis is a time when the stakes are huge," Welin said.

"We have an opportunity to build up our community rather than tear it down. The desire for a strong, healthy, and prosperous community is something that is good for all of us. It is time to move beyond finger pointing and to focus on what we are for; to build bridges, to find common ground, to find long-lasting solutions that weather the test of time."

A statement from the Ministry of Housing said it recognizes that people on income and disability assistance face challenges as global inflation and a continuing tight housing market make life more expensive.

The ministry said outreach workers are connecting with people experiencing homelessness in the Cowichan Valley to ensure they're aware of shelter spaces in the region and providing access to support services, including at The Village, a transitional housing property on Trunk Road in Duncan.

"BC Housing is also working closely with the City of Duncan on other initiatives to increase housing for people experiencing homelessness in the community," the statement said.

"We all want people to have the supports and services they need so they can participate fully in their community. Supporting vulnerable British Columbians through income and disability assistance to live full and dignified lives is a priority and is part of our government's TogetherBC poverty reduction strategy."

The ministry said those with developmental disabilities who are experiencing homelessness are prioritized for housing by BC Housing, and the allocation of subsidized housing in B.C. is based on needs, not length of time on a wait list.

"BC Housing staff connect with housing providers on an ongoing basis to assess active housing applications to ensure people in desperate need are prioritized for housing immediately," the statement said.

The ministry said it has increased the shelter rate, which is a core part of the income and disability assistance rate, by $125 per month, bringing the new maximum shelter rate to $500 per month for a single person.

The ministry also said BC Housing provides rent subsidies for people with low to moderate incomes, and the BC Rental Bank provides interest-free loans for tenants in urgent circumstances so they do not lose their housing.

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