Mark lived on the “mean streets” of Toronto for years.
Ravaged by his lifestyle, he was often seen by his nieces begging for money downtown. Out of shame, embarrassment and pity, they turned and walked away, so as not to be seen.
“Despite his demeanor, he was a gentle soul,” an emotional Peter Simpson said of his younger brother. “We told him we loved him, and he was gone.”
He finally succumbed to the damage caused by his lifestyle.
Simpson, also the President and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association, told the story Tuesday to a group of about 100 at Eaglequest Golf Course during a brainstorming session called a Business and Homelessness Dialogue hosted by the Surrey Board of Trade.
Homelessness is not so much about housing, but about a loss of “connectedness,” said Simpson, who also sits on Surrey’s Homelessness and Housing Society.
He listed several reasons why business should get involved with helping solve the problem, including lower health and social costs, stronger economy, healthier work environment.
“More than that, it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Simpson was followed by Graham Newberry, who accessed local services four years ago to get his own life back and has since become a successful realtor.
The audience then broke into groups of about 15, to discuss how homelessness affects their community and business and what can be done about it.
Colleen Staresina, Crime Prevention Coordinator for Whalley, offered a list of effects homelessness brings to the community, includng; an illusion of disorder, fear of crime, increased calls for service from police, city response and issues of mental health and addiction.
Government can throw a lot of money and support at these things, she said, but unless it’s coordinated, it will be of little use.
Pete Nichols, owner of Whalley Printers, said his community in North Surrey has decayed since the creation of the social services on 135 A Street in Whalley, including the Front Room Drop In Centre.
Nichols feels the term homelessness has just become a “catch phrase” for a host of problems plaguing society, including mental health and addiction.
To adequately deal with homelessness, the root problems have to be isolated and fixed.
Staresina cautioned the breakout group that often the homeless are looked on as vermin, “and the police as pest control.”
Coast Capital’s Jack Boyce later summarized the group’s comments by telling the crowd there’s a huge fear of the homeless and that the community has to take ownership of the issue. He noted that public education will be key, as will more affordable housing and supported housing for people with mental illness.
He said business can play several roles, including encouraging government to hire the homeless.
Common themes among those reporting to the group were a need for more affordable housing, a national housing strategy and a continuing dialogue amongst business leaders to find innovative solutions.
Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, said there will be a follow up “Call to Action” prepared by this November.
It will include many of the recommendations that arose from Tuesday’s event, including the need for a national housing strategy and more affordable housing.
The board will also be polling civic officials on the subject prior to the municipal election and making those findings public.