Signy Madden, executive director of United Way CNVI, introduces Shane Simpson, B.C. minister of social development and poverty reduction, at the United Way campaign kickoff breakfast Thursday at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre. NICHOLAS PESCOD/The News Bulletin

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A United Way campaign kickoff got people talking about poverty reduction and the issues around homelessness.

On Thursday, the United Way Central and Northern Vancouver Island hosted its annual campaign kickoff breakfast.

Signy Madden, executive director of United Way CNVI, told a crowd of roughly 300 people that she’s proud of all that her organization has done in the 60 years that it has been serving Nanaimo. She said the work of all those involved with United Way over that time frame has made the community a better place.

“Think about that, 60 years. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of people in our community are better off because you donated, because you volunteered,” Madden said.

She said during those 60 years, the role of the United Way has changed from just being a service provider to helping find solutions.

“We’ve changed and I think that is something people should be aware of,” she said, later adding “we have a homeless camp here in our community. Mental health and poverty, those are the big issues that our community, we have to tackle, we have to find solutions and United Way is part of that.”

Thursday’s event also featured Shane Simpson, minister of social development and poverty reduction, who talked a little bit about B.C.’s upcoming poverty reduction strategy.

“British Columbia is the only province in Canada that today does not have a poverty reduction strategy,” he said. “That is going to change in the coming weeks and months.”

Simpson, who was the keynote speaker for the event, told the crowd that included numerous local politicians, that he will be bringing forward legislation that will include adopting and implementing a poverty reduction strategy. Although he provided few details, Simpson said it will be part of the New Democrats’ 2019 provincial budget.

“We will legislate clear targets and timelines for what we anticipate and expect to achieve over a period of time to reduce poverty in this province. It will talk about who is impacted. It will talk about the issues and it will talk about the how we are accountable and transparent. The legislation is explicit, it doesn’t provide a whole lot of wiggle room for me as the minister. It says what I must do, not what I might do and it will lay out a clear agenda moving forward over a significant period of time for how we address the issues of poverty,” he said.

Simpson, who is the MLA for Vancouver-Hastings, said the strategy was developed over a few months of consultations across the province.

“We talked to about 8,500 people over the period of a couple months and 60 per cent of those people are living poor today, many of them street entrenched, many of them struggling in communities across the province and the reason that we took this approach was both to ensure that this issue didn’t become Vancouver-centric, it would be very, very easy to allow that to happen,” he said, adding that it was absolutely evident that the challenges of inequality and poverty were a provincial issue.

Simpson told the crowd the middle class are getting “squeezed” more and more, adding that many of the individuals who come into his office with questions about housing are those with family incomes of $50,000 or less that struggle to find affordable accommodation. He said the times are “challenging” when it comes to issues around affordability, housing and homelessness and that Nanaimo politicians and residents are facing that challenge in the most “visible way” with Discontent City and the issues around it.

“It’s a struggle that governments and civil society have to face every day. We know that the most vulnerable people in our communities continue to be at risk and that risk is elevated,” he said.

When it comes to the challenges that homeless individuals and many low-income families face, Simpson, knows them better than most politicians.

“My dad mistreated my mom,” he said. “When I was about 11 and my sister was about seven, we packed up with my mom and walked out the back door of the house and down the alley and went to stay with an uncle for a few months.”

From there, the MLA explained that his family was able to move into a housing project in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside. He said his family was “incredibly fortunate” to get into a B.C. Housing project because it allowed his mother to focus on raising him and his sister.

“That housing was so critical for our ability to not just survive, but for me and my sister to both succeed in our lives because what it did was took that essential question off the table for my mom about having a safe, secure place to live,” he said. “She then could focus her attention on all the other challenges of raising a couple of kids without anyone.”

Simpson said he’s looking forward to introducing the poverty reduction strategy, adding that he is honoured to be working as the minister of social development and poverty reduction.

“This is work that is important to me,” he said. “It’s an incredible privilege for me to have the opportunity now to be doing the work that I am doing.”

For more information on the United Way CVNI and on how to donate, please visit 
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