Referendum an option for raising funds for homeless

$180K raised annually through tax increase passed by Comox-area voters

Like Parksville Qualicum Beach, the Comox Valley is facing serious issues with homelessness.

According to the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD), estimates of people in the Valley who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless range from several hundred to more than 2,000.

In a unique move, the CVRD held a referendum in November regarding a tax to address homelessness. The referendum passed by less than 200 votes with 1,617 residents voting in favour of the tax and 1,433 voting against it.

The question asked residents if they favour a bylaw to establish a service to provide funds to one or more non-government organizations (NGOs) to deliver services to assist homeless individuals, based on a five-year plan.

At the tax rate of two cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, the owner of a residential property assessed at $300,000 would pay $6 per year. The tax is expected to generate about $180,000 annually.

The five-year plan was devised by the Comox Valley Coalition to End Homelessness which will guide how and where the money is spent.

Helen Boyd, a Coalition member, said in the first year funding will be dedicated to the creation of two new units for transitional housing for women and four units at a recovery centre for men. At a recent forum on homelessness in Parksville residents called for the creation of a homeless shelter or facility.

“It’s a prevention tax, it’s investing,” said Boyd. “We know economically if people are not housed it costs the health care system, our policing and social services much more than it actually costs to house people. It prevents people from being at risk.”

Boyd said she was “elated” about the referendum passing, even by a narrow margin, noting a non-binding question during the last civic election indicated 71 per cent of voters would support at least a $5 annual property tax increase to address homeless issues.

“It’s also a great segue to be able to talk to provincial and federal funders to say ‘listen, this is a plan that’s concrete, that the municipality has participated in and now we’re asking for provincial and federal funding,’” said Boyd. “It’s leverage. Everyone is on the same page about this. We speak with one voice and we intend to move these issues forward.”

Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness co-chair Sharon Welch applauded the Comox Valley’s approach to funding homeless initiatives, saying she would be interested in looking at a similar referendum as a “potential solution.”

“Kudos to their community,” said Welch. “It’s wonderful (the Comox Valley) is willing to pay that tax to help people get housed.”

Welch said based on the response she’s seen from Parksville Qualicum Beach residents, there appears to be a lot of public interest in finding solutions to homelessness. The recent forum in Parksville saw more than 150 people come out to a standing-room-only meeting on the issue.

“Poverty and homelessness are absolutely everyone’s issue and we all have to take part in dealing with it,” she said. “The most important thing is the community acknowledges there’s an issue and is willing to be engaged in coming up with solutions. What that looks like can be all different things.”

Parksville Mayor Marc Lefebvre said a referendum is a good way to show senior levels of government the city is serious about addressing homelessness and may be an avenue to more funding.

However,  he said he has “mixed” feelings about it.

“This isn’t our responsibility. It’s the provincial government’s responsibility,” said Lefebvre.

“Here we go again accepting issues that are not our responsibilities and we’re accepting downloading yet again. There are people who live in our community and they need help and when it isn’t coming from where it should be, we have to step up to the plate.”

Lefebvre said he’s not sure a referendum is the right route to take, but pointed out the Regional District of Nanaimo is working on the issue.

From 2012-2014 the RDN received Island Health grant funding to build a capacity to end homelessness. Parksville Qualicum Beach’s portion of that funding was $166,320. A majority of that money went to the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness who redistributed much of it to other organizations assisting in homelessness initiatives. In 2014 that funding dried up.

Currently, RDN staff is reviewing options to create a new funding model to address serious social issues including homelessness. One option involves taxing residents $.50 per $100,000 of assessed property value. For a property assessed at $400,000 the property tax would be $2. If the board wanted to do a full referendum, costs are estimated at upwards of $80,000.

RDN staff are expected to come back to the board in February with more information on how to move forward with funding.

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