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Poverty in Paradise — what services are available

Barb Ashmead of Qualicum Pet Foods hands out piles of free dog and cat food to people at the Community Suppers held at St. Stephen’s United Church once a month.  - LISSA ALEXANDER PHOTO
Barb Ashmead of Qualicum Pet Foods hands out piles of free dog and cat food to people at the Community Suppers held at St. Stephen’s United Church once a month.
— image credit: LISSA ALEXANDER PHOTO

Of all the issues weighing on the minds of local people in poverty, finding affordable housing is the heaviest burden.

This according to the co-ordinator with the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness, Sarah Poole; the executive director at the Society of Organized Services, Renate Sutherland; and the co-founder of Manna Homeless Society, Steve Karras.

"There is no housing for people," said Karras.

Karras said he's an example of how hard it is to survive in this area, because after he gives out donations of oranges, cereal and bread, among other donations on Saturday mornings in Parksville, he's taking a loaf for himself.

Karras lives alone and once he pays rent and all of his bills there's nothing left, he said. Since his last few roommates have suffered with drug and alcohol addictions, he draws the line at sharing his space.

"Right now it appeals to me to set up camp and stay there for the summer," he said.

Karras is on a local waiting list for subsidized housing but he isn't holding his breath, he said.

Duane Round knows what the affordable accommodation landscape looks like in the area. He is the president of the Parksville Lions Club and current director of the Parksville Lions Housing Society. He was president of that society when he initiated Hustwick Place, where he secured funding from all levels of government to build 33 units of affordable housing for seniors and adults with disabilities. Now he has moved on to help the Kingsley Low Rental Housing Society develop more affordable housing units in Parksville.

Currently, Parksville has 140 units of subsidized housing, 120 for seniors and adults with disabilities, and 20 for families with children under 18. The Qualicum-Parksville Kiwanis Housing Society is also in the process of trying to build 35 units to replace 20 aging units.

Round said the Lions Housing Society currently has a waiting list of 85 people for subsidized housing, and he hears about the need to expand that on a regular basis.

"There's a huge need," he said. "I get calls almost every week from people who have been evicted or are trying to find affordable accommodation."

Round is doing his part to try to increase affordable housing in the area and believes the provincial government has also stepped up under Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for housing.

This month, the minister announced the government has committed an additional investment of more than $300 million over five years, to help more individuals and families in-need access affordable housing. This funding is meant to help build new affordable housing, enhance rental assistance programs and support partnerships.

Round said a successful affordable housing project must meet a number of stipulations, but there's one in particular that is key.

"It absolutely must have community support. So that means local governments have to be putting something into the pot. A lot of time [the government agencies responsible] like to see land being given."

Parksville has been reluctant to give land, he said, but it has committed to relaxing Development Cost Charges, which is a good step, saving Hustwick Place $350,000 and allowing it to move forward, he said.

Round said another housing issue he sees local people facing is finding  affordable accommodation that will house pets. None of the Lions Housing currently allows pets.

Barb Ashmead knows all about this problem. She owns Qualicum Pet Foods, home of Qualicum Cat Rescue, and her volunteers have taken to handing out free pet food to clusters of homes in Coombs and Errington where people would otherwise not be able to afford healthy pet food, she said.

"I'd estimate that of the people living in poverty in this region, 80 per cent of them have a pet," she said.

Qualicum Cat Rescue has distributed about 1,200 free cat spay and neuter certificates in the past few years. Since Ashmead started handing out free pet food at St. Stephen's United Church during its Community Meals program, she's started discovering just how many people need her assistance.

"Last month we gave away enough food for 85 dogs and cats," she said. "It's great to be able to help those people, they are so thankful."

Ashmead used to agree with people who said if you can't afford a pet you shouldn't have one, but she's changed her mind. Pets offer a lot to people, she said, including compassion they might not otherwise get.

"These pets mean the world to people," she said.

St. Stephens Church in Qualicum Beach offers community suppers on the third Tuesday of every month and lunches every Thursday. Karen Vanderberg, community meals co-ordinator at the church, said when they first started the meals program only a few people attended. Now they get around 100 people to the monthly suppers and nearly 200 every Thursday for lunch. That includes 80 to 120 students from Kwalikum Secondary School.

“Some people ask, ‘do all those people need lunch?’ well of course they don’t,” she said. “But they’re not going to come on their own.”

Others looking for free lunch in the area head to the Salvation Army Soup Kitchen located at its church in Parksville on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Homeless co-ordinator Sarah Poole said one of the biggest gaps in services for homeless and those at risk of homelessness in the area is consistent food service.

“There’s no (free) breakfast, there’s limited dinners and on the weekend there’s nothing.”

That’s why Robin Campbell and Karras started parking the Manna Homeless Van on the streets of Parksville Saturday mornings four years ago, she said.

Transportation is a big issue for local people, Poole said, especially those trying to get their food from the Salvation Army’s French Creek Food Bank back to their homes. Not to mention the amount of jobs that now require driver’s licenses.

The Salvation Army Food Bank is open five days a week and people are allowed to collect food once a month. The Nanoose Community Cupboard also provides food to its residents-in-need once a month.

The Salvation Army offers a number of services to people in-need in the area from an emergency cold weather shelter to vouchers for pregnant mothers to buy healthy fruit and vegetables. Call 248-8793 for more information.

If people are unable to meet their basic needs they may also turn to Society of Organized Services for its Emergency Assistance Program. SOS has a wide variety of other programs for families including a nutritious dinner, a preschool program, youth night, and it provides vouchers for families to shop in the thrift store.

There are seniors programs and free drives to medical appointments for all ages, among referrals to other agencies and many other services. Call 248-2093 or visit www.sosd69.com for more information.

Despite all the hard work being done by service groups and social service providers, there is still far more to be done in Parksville Qualicum Beach, said the executive director of  the SOS, Renate Sutherland.

“As a community I believe it’s time that we acknowledge the fact that being poor is not because you’re lazy and there are people here that cannot make ends meet for myriad of reasons. And just because they are not sleeping in the doorway of your business, and we’re not seeing them pushing a shopping cart down the street, doesn’t mean they are not there. And we need to start talking about it and talking about what can we do to make it different.”

For any crisis people are experiencing, they can call the Vancouver Island Crisis line 24-hours-a-day at 1-888-494-3888, where they may also be referred to local services.

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