Column: Stories of homelessness serve as cautionary tales for Metro Vancouver residents

A series entitled “Who are the homeless?” which is currently running in the Times should cause all of us to pause and reflect on the issue of housing and homelessness.

It’s easy to say that most of those who are homeless are that way because of addiction or mental illness. However, the issue is much more complicated than that.

The stories that Gary De Angelis, a cook at the Gateway of Hope, and Aysha, who also works at the shelter and frequently plays music there, had to tell were very powerful. While both struggled with addiction, their paths in and out were very different.

In Gary’s case, many of his challenges stemmed from a workplace injury, while in Aysha’s case, a challenging home life as a young girl set her on a destructive path.

Gary became homeless as a mature adult. Aysha became homeless just as she ended her teen years.

As has been pointed out by many advocates, there is very little in the way of services for teens who are homeless in Langley, and in most other Lower Mainland communities.

Had Aysha been a bit younger when she first came to the Gateway of Hope for help, she may not have got it right away.

Last year, as many as 160 teens were homeless in Langley at various times.

Advocates would like to see a shelter of six to eight beds in Langley, to help homeless teens.

Both Gary and Aysha were helped to get past their addictions by the Gateway of Hope, but another important element in their stories is crucial. They both wanted to change the patterns of destructive behaviour.

They also realized that they needed help to do so – they could not do it on their own.

A quote from Aysha is significant.

“I feel that addiction can happen to anybody — life can happen to anyone. I think a lot of people are one paycheque away from being homeless.”

This is a very accurate statement, and given the rapidly-rising and frenetic real estate market, it should concern the community.

Real estate prices impact far more than what buyers pay for a house or an apartment. They have a major impact on the actual costs people pay for shelter — and that includes rental properties.

When prices rise dramatically, as they are now doing in Langley and across the Lower Mainland, there is an impact on rents.

Many may be unaware that Langley City has some of the lowest-priced rental properties in the entire region.

Those low rents may not remain in place for that much longer.

There are many people, working, on disability or retired, who are absolutely dependent on these low-cost rental properties to get through each month. They have no chance of ever buying a home in this area.

In the past, some of these people were affected if they lost their jobs and could not easily find new ones.

That is still a major concern. However, there are many people in rental properties on fixed incomes, and their incomes don’t change with the cost of housing.

As Jim Coggles of the Gateway of Hope says, “There are also a number of people in Langley who are the invisible homeless. There are many who live in camps, or couch surf, sleep in broken down cars or abandoned trailers.

“Others are migratory, passing through the community on their way to Vancouver, or are laid off workers from other parts of Canada — often day labourers — who are living below the poverty line.

“There’s a lot of different pieces and parts to it,” Coggles says.

Langley City has recently tabled the recommendations from its homelessness task force.

The task force quite properly recognized that to really tackle the issue, all levels of government must be involved.

The capital and operating costs for shelters must at least partially come from the federal or provincial governments.

Cities do not have access to the large amount of funding required.

At the present, the homelessness issue is on the radar for both senior levels of government, but how much attention are these same governments paying to the rapid rise in real estate prices?

Are they even aware that much higher rental costs will force many more people out onto the streets?

They may not be addicts or be struggling with mental illness when they are first homeless, but as Gary’s case illustrates, that can soon follow.

Safe and affordable housing is absolutely critical to our way of life in Canada,where it is really difficult to live outside when the weather is inclement.

Housing costs, and all the issues surrounding the current dramatic rise in real estate prices, need to receive prompt attention in order to prevent even more homelessness.

Frank Bucholtz is a retired editor of the Langley Times. You can find his Frankly Speaking blog at frankbucholtz.blogspot.ca.

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