With the Vancouver municipal election set to take place in a few weeks, finding solutions to end homelessness has been a focal point of discussion for mayoral candidates Kirk Lapointe, Gregor Robertson and Meena Wong.
It is also important that Vancouverites have an understanding of the social, demographic, economic, social and political factors pertaining to homelessness in order to make an informed decision when casting their votes. After all, the public has the power to choose which candidate has the most suitable policies in regards to providing support for the city’s homeless.
The results from the 2014 Homeless Count are perhaps one of the best tools that can be used to grasp just how many individuals in the city do not have anywhere to call home. The Homeless Count collects this data every three years in order to estimate the number of people who are homeless, obtain a demographic profile of people who are surveyed during the count, and to identify long term trends in the number and profile of people who are homeless.
According to the results of the count, which took place in March, there were an estimated 1,267 people considered as ‘sheltered homeless’ in the Vancouver region. ‘Sheltered homeless’ is a term used to describe individuals who are living in facilities such as transitional beds, shelters and safe houses. This definition also applies to those with no permanent address who were staying in a jail or detox center during the count.
The report showed that there were 536 individuals in Vancouver who categorized as ‘unsheltered homeless.’ This refers to individuals who had no physical shelter (staying outside on the streets) or were ‘couch surfing’ on the day of the count.
The total number of homeless in Vancouver counted for the 2014 count was 1,803. This number increased by 14 per cent in comparison to the 2011 count, which reported a total of 1,581 homeless people in Vancouver.
Lack of affordable housing
According to the count, 47 per cent of homeless individuals who were surveyed (ranging from all over Metro-Vancouver) said that they could not afford housing because their income was too low. Moreover, 42 per cent said that rents were too high.
The average living wage in Vancouver is $19.14. This means that someone would need to make this amount per hour in order to afford basic necessities such as food and rent. The Wesley Institute released a report in 2013 on overall homelessness in Canada. The report found that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver was $982 per month. With the minimum wage in the city being $10.25, there is a huge accessibility gap for those who can afford housing and those who cannot.
In 2007, the City of Vancouver (under the rule of the NPA) and the Province of British Columbia established a Memorandum of Understanding (MOA) to build new social housing units on 12 sites owned by the city. Two more sites were later added.
In 2008, BC Housing bought 24 single room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside from private companies. These hotels were in poor condition and BC Housing has since been renovating 13 single room occupancy units (SROs) that needed the most refurbishing. The BC government in 2011 approved this project. The revitalization of SROs is still ongoing and will be for the next several years.
Currently, there are 109 privately owned SRO hotels in the Downtown Eastside providing shelter for 4,500 people. Additionally, the Provincial government has ownership of 13 SRO hotels in the area. Nevertheless, there is still a shortage of available housing as a city report released in April 2014 noted that SRO units are sitting empty, there has been removal of SRO units due to renovations and a delay in low income housing availability.
Just because housing is being made available, does not necessarily mean it is accessible. A CBC report analyzing the development of the Downtown Eastside highlighted that activists for affordable living in the area were concerned that increases in social housing will be hampered by gentrification. SROs are supposed to be renting for the welfare rent of $375 per month. With the rising price of real estate and the development of high-end housing, SRO rent has reached almost $500 per month for many units.
Furthermore, many of SROs are not in livable conditions and many individuals living in these units are told to leave so renovations can take place.
With so much concentration on housing for the Downtown Eastside, other parts of Vancouver are overlooked in terms of funding and support. This means that the homeless populations of these communities relocate to the Downtown Eastside looking for some form of housing accommodations.
Developers are also to blame. For instance, a Vancouver Sun report indicated that Concord Pacific arranged for a reduction of social housing units in a False Creek complex. Instead, they gave the city a plot of land to develop in the Downtown Eastside.
Mental health and drug addiction
Housing alone does not make homelessness disappear.
A 2013 Globe and Mail article highlighted that 70 per cent of Vancouver’s homeless and single-room occupants were faced serious addiction and mental health issues.
The story also noted that there is a 100- bed facility in Burnaby providing support with those facing mental illness and addiction. However, a similar project was shut down last year.
So, even if individuals living on the streets find place to stay, they are also battling mental, and physical problems that impact their chances of finding stability to rebuild their lives. People cannot simply be provided with housing without support services.
The province run Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam was once a crucial institution for providing psychiatric care before it closed its doors in 2012. There are plans for much needed, mental health and addictions center to open at VGH in 2017, but those who need support now are facing an uphill battle.
Has Vision Vancouver made progress?
When Gregor Robertson was elected in 2008, he promised that he would end homelessness in Vancouver by 2015. In April of this year, Robertson changed his tune after realizing that his goal could not be met. The homeless count revealed that there was a large increase of people sleeping on the street. The number had risen from 154 in 2011 to 536 in 2014.
After these statistics came in, Robertson then pledged to try and eradicate ‘street homelessness’ by 2015. In a last attempt effort to do so, Vision decided to open winter shelters at the formal Kettle of Fish restaurant and turning the 157-room Quality Inn on Howe Street into transitional housing for two years. This decision was apparently made without a consultation process and has left many residents in the area feeling there was a lack of transparency in the way the City handled the situation.
The recent evacuation at Oppenheimer Park also does not bode well for Robertson and his Vision team. The encampment began in July, with homeless protesters wanting change with the city’s affordability and housing issues. The campers were ordered out of the park on October 16. The Oppenheimer Park protests highlighted that the need for low-income housing was simply not being met.
What are the mayoral candidates’ platforms on homelessness?
In terms of the upcoming election, the candidates have had varying stances on homelessness.
Gregor Robertson is planning to continue with his 30-year plan to create affordable housing in Vancouver, specifically in the Downtown Eastside. His announcement to open city-funded shelter and housing space at the Kettle Fish and Quality Inn are also two recent additions to his platform.
COPE candidate Meena Wong is hoping to take hard-pressed action to combat homelessness. COPE has released a 10-point homelessness plan. This plan requires developers to incorporate 20 per cent of affordable housing in new developments and get the provincial government to increase welfare rates. COPE’s full platform on homelessness can be found here.
If elected, Kirk Lapointe and his NPA team have pledged $350 million annually towards addressing housing, homelessness and other social issues in the Downtown Eastside. Lapointe has also not shied away from criticizing Robertson and his strategy to combat the problem. “We will have a new policy that will bring a new approach. You have to do more than give [the homeless] false hope,” he told The Province.
Regardless, any platform proposed by the candidates must be backed up with policy and action. The next homeless count will take place in 2017 and may be our best indicator as to whether Vancouver’s new mayor ( be it Robertson, LaPointe or Wong) has made any progressive impact to help the city’s most vulnerable and marginalized population.
Feature Image: Via Jonathan Dy