Thousands at risk of being homeless

Municipalities have to prepare for affordable housing crisis, conference told

Published on October 8, 2010

Everybody knows the cost of housing in Newfoundland and Labrador is skyrocketing.

But when a municipalities conference was told nearly 13,000 people are at risk of homelessness in St. John’s, there was an audible gasp in the room.

Municipalities in Newfoundland and Labrador are meeting in St. John’s this week and one of the presentations on the agenda was about affordable housing and what towns can do about it.

Kimberly Yetman-Dawson, the new director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing and Homelessness Network, spoke first at the information session, explaining that while you may never see people panhandling on street corners in Springdale, there are probably homeless people there.

There is little research to prove homelessness is a growing problem in rural areas of the province, but anecdotal evidence shows there are people “couch surfing” or living in squalor in abandoned sheds or even in their cars, she said.

“They actually don’t define themselves as being homeless.”

Yetman-Dawson says like never before, seniors and young people are being affected by the growing dichotomy between rich and poor.

In Newfoundland and Labrador there are long waiting lists for affordable housing and, with rents increasing, more people are being pushed out of their homes.

In fact, nearly 50 per cent of the units with rents under $500 a month have been eliminated from the rental market in recent years, she said.

Vacancy rates in Corner Brook are at 0.4 per cent, in Grand Falls-Windsor the rate is 0.7 per cent, Yetman-Dawson said.

But work is being done on the issue, she said. Ten towns in the province have created a homelessness action plan, which is used to identify people at risk, to collect as much information on homelessness in their regions as possible and to help engage their communities.

Towns are the key, Yetman-Dawson said, because municipalities can leverage money from other governments to build housing, they can provide in-kind solutions, proceed quickly with zoning changes or provide maintenance where needed.

For the conference, though, Yetman-Dawson asked that the towns only agree to support a resolution by the City of St. John's that promises to keep affordable housing on the radar screens of towns in hopes of being an advocate for the need and show a united front to other levels of government.

Also speaking at the conference was Glenn Furlong, a representative of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., who focused on other sources of funding. He also discussed a free housing action plan that the corporation is providing to small towns (less than 25,000 people).

Both speakers were questioned about where the resources were to come from to do that much work.

Beverly O'Brien from Cape Broyle said aside from having a volunteer council, the number of volunteers in the town are tapped out.

Boyd Snook, asked how his town was supposed to put a priority on housing when in Sunnyside there are still many homes without water and sewer.

Both Furlong and Yetman-Dawson agreed money could be found from other sources to help fund the work.

"If we don't say to ourselves that we can do it, then it will never get done," Furlong said.