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Civic hopefuls take stance on homelessness

SCC candidate Gary Robinson engages in a roundtable discussion during a
SCC candidate Gary Robinson engages in a roundtable discussion during a 'Candidates Cafe' held in North Surrey Wednesday night.
— image credit: Kevin Diakiw / The Leader

About 60 people gathered in Surrey's brand new City Centre library Wednesday night to get the first look at the candidates in the upcoming civic election.

Hosted by the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Task Force, the event was slated as a "Candidates' Cafe."

Seven round tables each hosted slightly different topics regarding homelessness, including addiction, youth, seniors, etc.

In groups of two and three, candidates were given 15 minutes at each table. Out of that time, the civic hopefuls were grilled by facilitators and then questioned by the group at the table.

Table six was considered a "general" topic table, where various topics regarding homelessness were discussed.

A few candidates quietly mentioned that this – the first all-candidates' meeting for mayor and council – felt like the beginning of the 2011 civic campaign for them.

Candidates at table six were initially asked in one minute or less, "tell us what you know about the current issues regarding homelessness and affordable housing, specifically in Surrey."

Some candidates were extremely forthright and admitted knowing little about the issue.

"I don't know enough, and that's why I'm here," said independent mayoral candidate Ross Buchanan. "My hope was to hear from the people who are actually out there on the front lines."

He said it's become apparent that this city isn't placing enough focus on the homeless.

"I have trouble sitting here today, just as I walked into this building, next to the billion-dollar boondoggle (a term he uses for  the new city hall under construction), I became very aware we've got our priorities upside down," Buchanan said.

Coun. Judy Villeneuve, who has advanced the cause of homelessness in the city for 20 years, said Surrey is finally doing something about the issue.

"I think that we still have people that are unsheltered," Villeneuve said. "The city has really decided that rather than building  more and more shelters that we want to put people in stable housing. Over the last 18 months, we've housed 356 people in stable housing with supports, and I'm really proud of that."

Surrey Civic Coalition (SCC) candidate Stephanie Ryan said developers looking for rezoning could dedicate 10 to 20 per cent of their development to affordable housing.

She also noted the issue can't be tackled by local government alone. Senior levels need to chip in.

One resident at the table pointed out senior levels of government don't budge on providing resources because homelessness and housing rarely becomes an issue during provincial and federal elections.

"You hit the nail right on the head," Ryan said. "If it's not, we need to make it one."

Bernadette Keenan – a candidate with Surrey Independent Greens Now (SIGN) – said homelessness has traditionally been an important issue with the Green party, both federally and provincially, but didn't seem to make it into the forefront of the minds of other parties. She also pointed out the "Occupy" movements are drawing attention to the issue of homelessness.

Candidates were then asked about affordable housing, which questioners said is now primarily being built in Newton.

"What plan could be put into place to locate affordable housing throughout Surrey and what will you do to advocate for this?"

Coun. Marvin Hunt challenged part of the question.

"I would challenge the fact in the first place that it's all being put in Newton," Hunt said. "By the same token there is a fair amount up here (in North Surrey), which is why we're trying to spread it over the entire city, including Cloverdale. South Surrey is also taking some, but it's a challenge down there, simply because of the price of land."

He pointed out the city has a $10-million fund in for affordable housing and homelessness, of which about $1.6 million has been allocated to service agencies over the past couple of years.

Hunt said the provincial and federal governments need to step up, because out of every tax dollar, 50 cents goes to the feds, 42 cents goes to Victoria and only eight cents stays in Surrey.

Of that, "we're dealing with water, sewer, garbage, roads, we're dealing with the big infrastructure," Hunt said. "So it's a challenge, that's why we're advocating federally and provincially."

SCC candidate Steve Wood said the city should implement a rental registry, which would identify and publish this city's rental stock.

He also believes secondary suite fees would best be used to pay for affordable housing programs.

"It doesn't seem that the less-fortunate in our community are getting their fair share," Woods said.

Paul Griffin, running as an independent, also acknowledged that he didn't know a lot about Surrey's homeless, except that they exist, and it's tragic.

"I think we as a society, rich society that we are, should be judged on the way we treat individuals," Griffin said. "And every individual demands to be treated with dignity, and that includes shelter."

SCC candidate Gary Robinson said he knows about the issue firsthand, because he was homeless a few years ago.

"In 2005, I was sleeping on King George Highway on a grass field," he said. I know the issues, I understand the desperation, I have some solutions."

He believes some of the development cost charges paid by big industrial developments should be going to "quality rental stock that's affordable, and that can be done anywhere the city owns land."

Mayoral candidate Vikram Bajwa said, despite its claims otherwise, the city is not doing enough for the homeless in Surrey.

"As a matter of fact, we have 400 people who are homeless every night in Surrey," Bajwa said, adding the $2 million the city has donated to homeless causes over the last three years is not enough.

"I think that number should be at least $8 million."

Coun. Barinder Rasode said Surrey has made a great start in putting a dent in homelessness.

She said to tackle homelessness effectively, the city also needs to work with seniors, youth, people with addictions and mental health issues. She also believes success means getting the development community to make more of a contribution.

"I'd like to continue on the work that we've started, I think we can do lots more," Rasode said.

The civic election is being held Saturday, Nov. 19.

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