By RON COOKE
There is a growing awareness and concern regarding homelessness here on our little bit of paradise.
For many of us, who own our own homes or have a stable rental situation, it doesn’t really show itself to be the growing problem that it is, but I would ask you to leave your comfort zone for a moment to consider what is actually becoming a crisis situation, percolating out of sight but beginning to have a profound effect on the sanctity of our island home.
Homelessness is an uncomfortable topic for many, as it conjures up stereotypes that cloud the issue: those who are drifting and living rough. While this element deserves our compassion, it is not the real issue.
In point of fact, “homeless on Salt Spring” now has come to mean the many, many amongst us who have lived here for years, even grown up here, and call this home, and yet now find themselves in the unenviable position of having to move, and not being able to find a place to move into. Stagnant wages and the ever-increasing cost of real estate are partly to blame, so for some, it is just that they can no longer afford the ever-increasing rents being asked here.
But worse than that, it is the fact that our housing stock has not grown to meet the needs of our community. There are simply no houses left to rent, nor houses that a young family can afford to buy. Take a look at the real estate mag in the Driftwood — almost everything advertised is $800,000 and up into the millions. That is perhaps great for those who wish to retire here, but for those beginning their life journey, it is simply unattainable — and I would suggest to you that without our young and middle-aged work force, we are all totally screwed — young, middle aged and old.
If you were to talk to any of the major employers here — the food stores, Windsor, Moby’s, the hospital, the school district, etc. — they would all be quick to tell you that finding and keeping employees has become a major concern. I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but it has become a true crisis.
We have over the years put in place safeguards to slow the influx of newcomers to our island paradise, and understandably so. The Islands Trust, our official community plan and land-use bylaws are all designed to preserve and protect the sanctity of the island, but we are now at a point where they have all become impediments to meeting the needs of our community. They all need to find a way to bend to meet and resolve our housing crisis — particularly where affordability is concerned. More than that, though, we the residents need to accept the fact that without meeting this challenge head on, we are facing a major degradation in the quality of all our lives.
The answers to this problem are complex and long overdue, but there are things we can do. None of us wants to see big housing developments coming in, but we can and should review how we regulate growth here. Farming is changing from single-family enterprises to co-op and communal endeavours, but our regulations fail to recognize this. Tiny homes are an answer for some, yet this movement meets with intransigence. Our definition of a “density” can be modified to better suit the times. There are many good minds at work trying to grapple with these issues, but the lack of awareness on the part of the average islander has proven to be a problem in itself.
So what can you do? First, be aware — we all need to see the problem. Second, be supportive of those who are working to solve this. Third, when you hear the word “homeless,” remember it does not necessarily mean someone with a backpack and a dog — it means your friends and neighbours, and those who provide the necessities of a healthy community. For those of us trying to solve this problem, NIMBY-ism and fear of change are in many ways the biggest obstacles that we meet.
There is, however, more to life than our property values and comfort zones. Most of us moved here to be part of a community: it is time to put our community’s needs front and centre.
The writer is a Salt Spring Community Services board member working on the island’s housing crisis.