Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns brings the plight of the homeless to Parliament
February 22nd, 2019 - 6:26pm
Marcy is a middle-aged woman who has been “precariously housed” for the past five years.
During that time, she has house-sat, couch-surfed, and lived in a tent and in a camper. She is a home support worker, but only on a casual basis due to chronic health conditions. She receives $1,100 monthly in disability assistance, $375 of which is earmarked for housing.
“It’s exponentially getting worse,” she said, regarding rental rates and other factors contributing to homelessness in the Comox Valley.
William Webb is a retired army sergeant whose military service included a six-month tour in Afghanistan. Against his will, the army released him from duty for medical reasons in 2016 — six months shy of 20 years of service.
“Those extra six months could have been the difference in keeping me from being homeless,” Webb said in a testimony in Ottawa before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs (VA).
The 50-year-old Courtenay man who suffers from post-traumatic stress expects to be homeless — again — within the next six months.
These are just two of the individuals in the Valley who are falling through the cracks, struggling to keep a roof over their heads — as are many others across Canada.
Speaking before the House, Courtenay-Alberni NDP MP Gord Johns said that Marcy has been forced to choose between eating, paying rent or buying medicine.
“This shouldn’t and doesn’t have to happen in a country like ours,” said Johns, vice-chair of the VA committee. “We need a universal pharmacare program for her so that nobody else has to make these choices.”
The issue of homelessness is complicated by multi-jurisdictional issues. In an interview, Johns said the federal government in the early-1990s downloaded housing onto provinces, and bailed on their National Housing Strategy.
“Ten per cent of all housing in Canada was non-market housing. Now we’re at four per cent because they downloaded on provinces, who then downloaded on municipalities,” Johns said. “Municipalities can’t be left alone any longer.”
Johns criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for saying the bulk of National Housing Strategy funds will roll out after the next election if the Liberals are re-elected.
“People don’t want to hear there’s going to be a home for them in 2027, and only half the people are going to be housed. What about the other half?”
Though provincial income assistance rates are low, Johns credits the B.C. government for rolling out an aggressive housing strategy that is creating half of the non-profit housing in Canada.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, we were at 10 per cent. Now, four per cent of housing is non-market in Canada. We need non-market housing. The federal government should be doubling down on the efforts of the province…We are in a full-blown crisis. All levels of government have to work together. It’s important for the economy, it’s important for our values as Canadians. And the people, especially those suffering from mental health and addictions — we can’t forget about them — they can’t get help without a roof over their head.”
Johns credits Marcy for coming forward with her story, and for carrying out important work in the community.
“She inspires me to keep the foot to the gas, and press it every day I’m in Ottawa,” he said.
As for Webb, Johns said his was the most powerful testimony by a witness appearing before the VA committee.
“He had everyone in tears. His story is so real, and it’s so tragic that the Government of Canada cannot take care of those who have put their lives on the line. It’s so embarrassing. His testimony made an impact on everybody. It’ll have a huge influence on the report coming out on homelessness.”
Webb feels the system is designed to place roadblocks in the way of veterans. His journey to homelessness began post-deployment in 2012. He wasn’t provided with decompression when he returned home. He was given five days’ leave and thrown into a high-stress teaching position. At the time, he was living in Shilo, Man. His rent was $800 a month. Webb then returned to Vancouver Island to be closer to his two sons, one of whom has autism. He now faces $2,500 a month for rent, which would take most of his income and more than half his pension.
Last May, Webb and his boys were living in a trailer in the Walmart parking lot. For the time being, they are back in a house.
Webb receives long-term disability benefits from Manulife, which requires him to file for early CPP disability, which means he will have less money when he’s 65.
“There’s two classes of veterans in Canada,” Webb said. “Those that were pre-2006 that get lifetime pensions for injuries sustained while serving. In 2006, they changed the rules to lump-sum payments.”