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Candidates weigh in on homelessness

Candidates for mayor and city council met for the first all-candidates debate of the election on Saturday.
Councillor Garth Frizzell makes his opening statement at the all-candidates forum held at the Firepit Saturday. Candidates fielded questions dealing with the homeless problem in Prince George.

Candidates for mayor and city council met for the first all-candidates debate of the election on Saturday.

The Fire Pit Cultural Drop-In Centre hosted a debate focused on social issues facing the city including poverty, homelessness and affordable housing.

Mayoral candidates Lyn Hall and Don Zurowski participated, along with council candidates Jeffery Cunin, Garth Frizzell, Albert Koehler, Murry Krause, Coralee Larsen, Jason Luke, Terri McConnachie, Jillian Merrick, Debora Munoz, Monica Peacock, Donald Roberts, Ravi Saxena, Susan Scott, Travis Shaw, Brian Skakun, Roy Spooner, Cameron Stolz, Harris Ulch and Dave Wilbur.

Candidates were assigned questions to respond to in groups of three, with each candidate receiving two randomly-assigned questions on topics ranging from what council can do to create affordable housing, to the 2015 Canada Winter Games and issues of safety in the downtown

"This is our community's problem and we need to own it," Zurowski said. "We have work to do as a community."

Just because people are without a physical home does not mean Prince George isn't their home community, he said, and the city needs concrete, detailed plans to advocate for with the provincial and federal governments.

Prince George is the service centre for the north, and that includes social services.

Because of that, the city has "accelerated needs" compared to similar-size communities elsewhere in the province.

"[But] when you're elected to council, you're IQ doesn't immediately go up 50 points," Zurowski said. "We have two ears, two eyes and one month. We need to listen and observe 80 per cent of the time, and speak 20 per cent."

Hall said if he is elected mayor, he would like to appoint a member of city council to serve as the liaison to work with social service agencies on issues such as poverty and homelessness.

"We can't do it alone... [and] the help is around this room," Hall said. "My promise to you is... [if elected] we would be back here to have this conversation again."

The city's Housing First strategy -which calls for providing housing as a first step to addressing the issues behind a person's homeless situation -is "a good start," to addressing the complex issue of homelessness, Hall said.

"If I could make any changes to that strategy, it would be that I would just strengthen the partnerships and the resources," he said.

The city is facing additional pressure on housing costs because people in communities like Kitimat and Terrace, where economic activity is driving rents up exponentially, are leaving those communities to find more affordable housing in Prince George, Hall said.

Some of the other highlights of the meeting included:

"Nothing is going to happen, moving forward, if we don't have a good council that works," Skakun said. "The last three years have been challenging. We need the right people at the table, we need the right leadership."

"I know what it's like to live in poverty. I know what it's like to be that close to being homeless," Larsen said.

"I've been involved in social justice for 40 years. [And] I'm humbled by the people we serve," Krause said. "My commitment has been to making a difference."

"The [2015 Canada Winter] Games are a wonderful thing," Spooner said. "[But] if we can house 4,000 athletes, why can't we house 400 [homeless] people?"

"We have a downtown tax exemption," Frizzell said. "In Winnipeg they use that kind of exemption for social [and high-density] housing."

"Nobody is voluntarily homeless. Nobody is voluntarily sick. Nobody is voluntarily addicted to things. It comes down to respect, and accepting people," Koehler said.

Council candidates Trent Derrick, Frank Everitt, Ron Gallo, Alex Huber, Gregg Kauk, Bryan Mix and Dawn Taylor didn't attend the event.