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Courtenay-Comox MLA discusses homelessness issue, barriers facing government

Comox Valley Transition Society executive director Heather Ney (holding scissors), Minister of Housing Ravi Kahlon (to her right) Courtenay Mayor Bob Wells and Courtenay-Comox MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard are joined by city councillors in the official ribbon cutting ceremony for Darry’s Place in April - a second-stage housing project for women and children fleeing violence. Photo by Terry Farrell

On Sept. 27, Comox Valley Record editor Terry Farrell wrote a column titled ‘Politicians offer a lot of talk, little action regarding homelessness,’ calling out, in particular, Courtenay-Comox MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard, for declining an interview opportunity to discuss homelessness in the community. Once the column was published, the BC NDP caucus reached out to Farrell, asking for another opportunity to discuss the issue with Leonard. The following is the result of that interview


Courtenay-Comox MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard says she has been seeking solutions for homelessness in the Comox Valley ever since she was a Courtenay councillor, from 2005-2011.

During her tenure in city politics, there was a Mayor’s Task Force to End Homelessness - initiated by then-mayor, Starr Winchester, in 2007.

That evolved into the Coalition to End Homelessness, in 2014, and one year later, a referendum was passed, creating a bylaw to fund a five-year action plan to address homelessness in the Comox Valley. At the tax rate of two cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, the owner of a residential property assessed at $600,000 would pay $12 per year.

Leonard, after first running as the federal NDP candidate in the 2011 federal election - losing by a slim margin to incumbent John Duncan - was elected as the Courtenay-Comox MLA for the NDP in 2017.

Leonard has been dealing with the homelessness issue as a politician for many years.

When asked what the barriers are, she pointed toward partnerships.

“First of all, you need to have a willing partner. And I think we have a willing partner in the city to find a shelter site, but it’s been challenging,” she said.

Those challenges go all the way back to 2007. According to Leonard, there were numerous potential sites for permanent shelters considered, but residents successfully fought against such construction.

“I know it was challenging when I was on council when dozens of sites were looked at… (but turned down) because of the community pushback,” she said.

Starr Winchester, who was the mayor of Courtenay at the time, said one site she remembers being turned down was right across the street from City Hall. Local merchants successfully argued against the development, citing concerns about the degradation of the downtown area.

Leonard said she had high hopes for an announcement of a permanent shelter this summer, after receiving reports from BC Housing regarding meetings with the City of Courtenay.

“Earlier this summer BC Housing was making a presentation to city council, and they were talking about how they’d seen close to 40 sites, that they were really close, and I thought for sure that they were, you know, on the verge of having a site and being able to, to move forward to build a permanent shelter,” she said. “And it just hasn’t happened. I am frustrated.”

Leonard said BC Housing and the city are currently looking at some very good options and senses that an announcement is coming soon.

She added her constituency is not an outlier. The situation is similar in communities right across the province. But that makes it no less frustrating for her, or the residents of the Comox Valley.

“It’s more than just getting answers - it is actually making that commitment.”

Leonard commended the city for its efforts to bring The Junction to reality.

The Junction, located at 988-8th Street in Courtenay, provides 46 homes with supports for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, operated by the John Howard Society of North Island.

The city supplied the land for the housing complex and leases the property to the BC Housing Management Commission. This lease is equivalent to nearly half a million dollars over the 25-year lease term.

In addition to The Junction, Leonard pointed to Cypress Gardens and the Wachiay project on McPhee Avenue.

“Those are two that are based on the model of having mixed-income,” she said. “So you have people living there with shelter rates, people who can afford 30 per cent of their income, and then some that are slightly below market rent. I think it goes 50-20-30 but I am not sure of the order.”

Leonard added the root of the problem is the historical lack of high-density housing being built in the Comox Valley.

“If I look at the Comox Valley, for over 30 years, there were no purpose-built rentals during that time. There was one building … that came forward just at the end of my term in back in 2014, the one down around 31st and Cliffe… but nothing after that, nothing before that for decades. So we’re really behind the 8-ball.”

In the meantime, Leonard said advocating for more purpose-built housing is the way to go - and she is advocating at every turn.

“I’m gonna toot my own horn here a little bit because I was at UBCM and, and every time we met and different communities met with the minister (Ravi Kahlon, minister of housing) he was saying ‘Ronna is always at my door’ and it’s true. So he’s very aware of the challenges we’re facing in Courtney with the increasing number of homeless people and, and the challenges that we’re facing… so we’re unfortunately on the radar for this.

“It’s unfortunate in the sense that we have to be on the radar. But fortunate in the sense that it’s been picked up.

“I know people hope that one day we can be rid of all of this problem, but I think it’s a part of the human condition that we just keep having to work towards the goal.”

Terry Farrell

About the Author: Terry Farrell

Terry returned to Black Press in 2014, after seven years at a daily publication in Alberta. He brings 14 years of editorial experience to Comox Valley Record...
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