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Tackling the Affordable Housing Crisis

Sitting in the comfort of my home office and looking out at the houses around me, it can be hard to put my mind into a place where I can imagine what it’s like for people who are living on the street or struggling to pay their rent. All it takes is a few minutes watching the news, reviewing social media or talking to colleagues in local government to sharpen the focus on these very challenging issues.

In Exchange, we hear from communities that are taking action to end homelessness and create more affordable housing. This is particularly impressive as both issues involve a myriad of complex causes and influencing factors, and cannot easily be resolved. As I spoke to the local and regional government staff who shared their experiences and insights, it was a bit difficult to avoid feeling bogged down by pessimism or overwhelmed by the sheer challenges and barriers they face.

Addiction, mental illness, job loss, disabilities, low vacancy rates, high rental rates…the list of factors affecting homelessness are widely varied and the result is that there’s no such thing as one solution fits all. It’s also important to remember that these types of health and social issues are not typically addressed by local government. As well, when it comes to the lack of affordable housing, local government has little or no control over many of the contributing factors such as escalating real estate costs and low vacancy rates due to increased demand.

Then there is the NIMBY factor – “Not in my backyard!” No one wants people who are homeless camping in their backyard. I sincerely doubt that most people you talk to would feel any differently, and I can certainly understand the fear and, sad to say, distaste. Residents want to distance themselves from people who are homeless. But there is also resistance to having homeless shelters, even in centralized locations or business districts. Rather than NIMBY it’s really NIMC – “Not in my community!”

The question then becomes, if not in your community – where can people go? Where can they get the help they need? I was shocked to learn how many young people are homeless and addicted to drugs. It was also interesting and somewhat reassuring to learn about the proven benefits of “Housing First” to help change people’s lives and get them off the street – permanently. I think perhaps we all need to remember that these are people first – and being homeless is just their current status. Furthermore, if there are viable solutions out there to help get people off the street and into housing so they can get back on their feet or be helped with their mental health problems, addictions and other issues, we all benefit.

It’s also encouraging to hear about success stories like New Westminster, where the changes and incentives introduced at a local government level are prompting new rental housing developments for the first time in decades, and changes in policies are providing for more varieties of housing options, such as secondary suites and laneway homes. These more affordable housing choices are all a positive step forward.

As each story was shared, it became evident that implementing viable solutions is only feasible when community and social service organizations are integrated into the process. It’s also essential that all three levels of government play a role, including providing leadership to guide new initiatives and allocating funding. It may take months, or more likely years, before there is a significant shift towards more affordable housing and an end to homelessness, but that makes it even more important to get started now.

Waste Not. Want Not.

I did not fully appreciate how important garbage and recycling services were until I started working in local government. It came as a bit of a shock when I did a survey of residents to find out what information they most wanted to receive from the City. You guessed it – garbage schedule updates. Since then, I’ve paid a lot more attention to garbage and the increased expectation for recycling. Back in the old days – so let’s say 15 years ago – our family tossed everything into the garbage. I wasn’t aware of recycling programs and wouldn’t know what to do with them even if I knew they existed. Our small family filled two garbage cans up every week and didn’t blink. When I first heard the term “zero waste” I considered it a nice ideal but unlikely in terms of any practical application.

Jump ahead to today. We recycle everything we can, including dropping off items like electronics and paint cans at depots. We separate our food scraps. We make sure that paper, containers and glass are kept out of the garbage. We sort our refundable bottles and cans. We use one small garbage cart that is collected biweekly. We experience guilt if a recyclable item inadvertently makes its way into the garbage. We are converts to the aspiration for zero waste.

This evolution to conscientious recycling isn’t complete. I know there are holdouts. I suspect there is less personal pressure when you’re an anonymous resident in a multi-family complex with centralized collection. But I believe the pressure and the acceptance of the responsibility to recycle will continue to spread. The trick for local governments is going to be keeping up with demand.

In Sustainable Waste: Not an Oxymoron in the summer 2016 Exchange, it was interesting to see how different areas of the province have developed their own best practices to suit the needs and challenges of their communities. It’s nice to know that one solution doesn’t need to fit everyone, and that a mix of approaches can still support the same outcomes in the long term.

Even more exciting to me is the growth in new industries to turn waste into a resource that can be used and/or sold by local governments. Instead of looking at this waste as, well, a waste, these organizations are tapping into  ways to sell their waste as new products. The examples shared in Waste Not. Want Not. Generating Products from Waste, are creating new revenue sources for local governments to help offset their operating costs while also supporting waste diversion goals and extending the life of their landfills. Whether its high tech or low tech, the outcomes and benefits for taxpayers and the environment are impressive. Plus, the idea of turning garbage into a product that adds value is something everyone can celebrate.

Waste management will continue to be a critical service, and residents will likely continue to list it as one of their top priorities. It’s nice to see the progress in how these services are being delivered, the progress towards waste diversion goals, and the potential for creating something new and valuable from garbage and recycling someone else has tossed out. Kudos go to the local governments embarking on these projects and the organizations that support them.

Supporting Mental Wellness

I would describe this edition of Exchange as being an enjoyable challenge. The topic is sensitive, and there are limits to what we can fit into a magazine story. We have done our best to touch on some of the essential information. Tied with this is the importance of providing clear parameters around an employer’s responsibilities and what individuals can realistically do. And quite frankly, this was challenging because for some people, mental health issues are still considered murky – or even scary – waters.

I used a composite story format again in Exchange because we are delving into sensitive topics. Most people do not feel comfortable sharing the intimate details of their battle with mental illness. Not surprisingly, they do not want to shine a spotlight on their personal health matters in a magazine. But sadly, statistics indicate that many people don’t want to let anyone know they are experiencing challenges – including their physicians. It seems that even with proactive campaigns like Bell: Let’s Talk (which coincidentally was running a series of television commercials leading up to the spring edition of Exchange), there is still stigma associated with mental health issues. I was shocked to learn that many people still believe that mental health is something that an individual should be able to control, as though all it takes is mental fortitude to knock out depression, anxiety or trauma responses. Or even worse, there are situations in the workplace where people are either quietly or openly critical of individuals who are struggling with a mental health challenge.

When you consider the statistics of how many people are dealing with mental health issues, including stress responses, depression and anxiety, it seems strange that this topic is still considered awkward. Stigma is clearly hard to shake off. As I wrote the composite story Battling Inner Darkness, which was developed using information about the symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I was careful not to exaggerate behaviours or experiences. I felt the story needed to feel very real and relevant for anyone who may be struggling with these types of symptoms. When I captured some of the statistics in Get the Facts on Mental Health, I wanted to shout “It’s an illness, for crying out loud!” and then realized the sad part is that people are crying out silently. The stigma related to mental illness still plagues individuals, groups and organizations, but the good news is that more people are talking openly about the challenges and resources that can help individuals onto a path towards improved mental health. Local governments and other organizations are gaining a better understanding of their role and responsibilities for a safe workplace, and legislation that identifies mental health impacts as a workplace safety consideration. I encourage you to read the composite story and then use Spot the Signs to test out your ability to spot key symptoms of mental health concerns being experienced by Jack and Jill – the characters in our fictional story. See what the experts say about the behaviours exhibited by Jack and Jill, and learn more about the impacts on the workplace and the role of employers in Workplace Impacts and Employer Obligations. Our goal with this edition is to encourage conversations and openness, and to provide the context of how mental health issues can affect individuals and organizations.