A standing-room-only crowd of 150 people packed a room at The Bayside in Parksville on Tuesday night for a forum about homelessness. Above

Searching for a home — room packed for homelessness forum in Parksville

Focus shifts to finding a location to serve homeless population

With empty buildings dotting Parksville Qualicum Beach and homelessness on the rise in the face of a one per cent vacancy rate, many residents are asking why these spaces can’t be turned into a housing facility.

Both the old Parksville elementary school on Stanford Avenue and former YAM building on Alberni Highway have been deserted for many months or years.

On a blustery Tuesday evening, a standing-room-only crowd of about 150 people came to the Quality Resort Bayside to hear from a panel of four local experts on homelessness and share ideas about how to address the issue.

Renate Sutherland, the co-chair of the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness and SOS executive director, said it’s not that easy.

A shelter, she said, is more than just four walls and a roof. “I don’t know about you but if I’m going to live somewhere I’d like my own bedroom… it needs laundry facilities, it needs kitchen facilities, it needs all kinds of things. I so appreciate that we just want to get this done, but we want to do it in a way that’s respectful. And we want to do it in a way where people are going to feel safe, respected and it’s going to allow for us to not just meet the needs of folks coming off the street today, but folks as they move through the continuum where they are ready to have more independence.”

Some people at the meeting voiced frustrations. At least one person said: “it is that easy!” and another suggested people currently living in tents likely wouldn’t care if they had their own bedroom.

Residents and experts alike did agree that some form of social housing was in order.

“It’s not enough for us agencies to say ‘this is what we need.’ We need you as the community to tell the politicians this is what we need here in Parksville,” said Forward House executive director Sharon Welch.

“We need you to get behind it and understand having one of these buildings in your neighbourhood isn’t going to make your house prices drop, it’s not going to ruin your neighbourhood. It’s going to make Parksville a better place for more people.”

Sutherland added: “If we’re lucky enough to get a piece of land, or if we’re lucky enough to get a landlord who would be willing to sell us a building at a reasonable cost, we need neighbours of that building or land to not go to the city and say ‘I don’t want that building in my backyard.’”

Loud applause rippled throughout the audience.

Canadian Mental Health Association’s Dwight Holland and Island Crisis Care Society’s Greta Hogan said public transportation, social assistance rates, food security and mental health issues are all visible problems in Parksville Qualicum Beach, intimately linked to homelessness.

Optimism echoed through the crowd after a 13-year-old girl stood up and asked what young people like herself could do to help.

Task Force research coordinator Sarah Poole, who organized the forum, said fundraising, volunteering, joining civic action groups and spreading the word through social media will help.

“We absolutely as a community can end homelessness here,” said Sarah Poole. “But we need to find our own funding opportunities and it needs to come from the community as well as creating a unified front so it can also come from the provincial government.”

The forum was moderated by NEWS editor John Harding. The dinner before the forum was sold out (about 100 people).

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