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Could churches help fight homelessness?

Burnaby Coun. Paul McDonell -
Burnaby Coun. Paul McDonell
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Burnaby Coun. Paul McDonell would support the creation of homeless shelters on church properties in the city.

McDonell stressed that's his personal opinion and he was not speaking on behalf of council.

The idea is that such properties are exempted from paying city property tax.

"I think personally, the people that get tax subsidies, that pay no tax or very little tax, should be giving something back to the community if they have a facility that could be used for that."

McDonell, who serves as chair of Burnaby's social issues committee, was commenting in response to the preliminary findings from this year's Metro Vancouver homeless count.

In Burnaby, there were 58 homeless people counted during a 24-hour period on March 12. That's down from 78 in 2011 and 86 in 2008, but up from 42 in 2005.

Of this year's total, 44 were unsheltered living outside or couch surfing. One was classified as having no fixed address and another 13 were in transition houses or in the church space normally used as an extreme weather shelter, said Wanda Mulholland, Wanda Mulholland of the Burnaby Task Force On Homelessness.

While the weather didn't qualify as a reason to open the extreme weather shelter, funding was found from other sources to open it that night to facilitate the homeless count, Mulholland explained.

She stressed that the count is a snapshot in time and is generally viewed as an undercount. She cited as factors contributing to homelessess the city's market rental vacancy rate of two per cent, high rents and old rental stock that is increasingly being demolished to be rebuilt as condos.

Progressive Housing Society's outreach program helps 30 to 40 new clients each month who are homeless or at risk of being so. The extreme weather shelter operated by Lookout Emergency Aid Society was open for 43 nights between October and April and provided 325 bed nights of shelter.

The number of homeless people in Metro Vancouver rose five per cent over the past three years, a relatively small change that has prompted advocates to declare the problem stabilized.

Preliminary results of the 2014 Metro Vancouver homeless count were released Wednesday, showing an overall count of 2,770 homeless in the region, up from 2,650 in 2011.

The number of street homeless not found in shelters climbed 26 per cent to 957, although most of that increase was in the City of Vancouver, where the street homeless count more than tripled to 538.

McDonell reiterated Burnaby council's stance that housing is the responsibility of the provincial and federal governments.

Council does its part by working to increase the stock of rental housing, by legalizing secondary suites, for instance, and encouraging development. The first tower to be built at Brentwood mall will include 300 market rental units.

The more supply there is, the better. "I guarantee if you get  flooded with rental units, the price is going to drop dramatically."

He can't speak for the rest of council but he would personally support a homeless shelter operated out of tax exempt properties, such as churches.

"People are homeless, they're here, so something should be done. It's just whose role is it to do it."

Churches are getting "a huge tax break, to be honest," McDonell said.

"It shouldn't be up to the rest of the taxpayers to pay for something that other people would probably have a more vested interest in, such as churches. The teachings are you look after the poor, so maybe you should start with the churches."

~ with files from Jeff Nagel

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

twitter.com/WandaChow

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