“People Will Continue to Suffer Without Homes, Washrooms and Having Their Belongings Taken Away by Police”

Temporary shelters will be open year round thanks to new funding, but it’s not enough, say local experts.

As Vancouver awaits the results of the 2019 Homeless Count— lucky number 13 since the reporting began in 2002—a provincial organization is hoping to alleviate the city’s worsening humanitarian crisis by committing millions to a temporary solution.

Days before city council was set to vote on a motion to keep temporary shelters (set to close this March 31) open year round, BC Housing committed $3.1-million to keep 240 beds open for one more year.

Municipal and provincial governments can agree that housing isn’t coming fast enough to help all 2,181 residents who experienced homelessness last year. Eighty percent of the 606 temporary modular housing units built in Vancouver since last year’s count are occupied by people who had previously been without homes. But this winter’s unprecedented tent city at Oppenheimer Park signals Vancouver’s homeless population is growing faster than solutions can be applied.

“People will continue to suffer without homes, washrooms and having their belongings taken away by police,” says Councillor Jean Swanson, finding it hard to celebrate that her own motion gained financial support from the province.

“No one likes homelessness, but people think of different excuses to avoid permanent solutions—like not enough money in the budget, even when it’s somehow there for Robson Square Plaza.”

That single project is proposed to take $5.4-million out of the city’s 2019 budget. Comparatively, Vancouver has allotted $7.7-million to “increase housing supply and affordability, and improve availability and supports for renters and vulnerable citizens.”

Recognizing that specific projects gain more support than general calls to action, Fiona York of the Carnegie Community Action Project helped draft Swanson’s second upcoming motion addressing homelessness, to help campers at Oppenheimer Park.

“We contacted every group we could think of before going the route of a motion,” says York, listing BC Housing, the mayor, city staff, Red Cross, Salvation Army, UGM, the park board and the Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction.

“No one likes homelessness, but people think of different excuses to avoid permanent solutions—like not enough money in the budget, even when it’s somehow there for Robson Square Plaza.”

Councillor Jean Swanson

She says the political groups didn’t support financing a warming tent for the park, where 80 to 100 people camped out this year in subfreezing temperatures without access to washrooms past 5:00 p.m. Temperatures are warming up, which York worries will dilute the urgency of this motion.

“I’ve been there to check on people around 10 or 11 at night,” says York, whose outreach team prioritizes the safety of these vulnerable citizens. “You don’t want to be out there for an hour, let alone sleep there overnight, whether it’s freezing or not.”

York says no one is leaving because certain shelters don’t allow mixed gender couples, or have the space for people to bring their belongings. But Brenda Prosken, Director of Operations at BC Housing, says people living in Oppenheimer Park have been offered housing and shelter options.

“Some people don’t accept them for various reasons,” says Prosken citing trust issues or a lack of education around the solutions being offered. “We’ve been working very closely with outreach teams to make sure the health and safety of those individuals are being regularly checked.”

Not all people experiencing homelessness will take advantage of the eight temporary shelters’ one-year extension, but Prosken says BC Housing’s ultimate goal is to create more permanent housing for all.

“That takes time, so shelters are an interim measure that we’re hoping will bridge people not just to temporary modular housing units, but also other housing solutions under development,” Prosken says.

Both downtown Vancouver and Strathcona’s business improvement associations wrote in to council to support the motions calling for more housing solutions for the city’s homeless. “The more opportunities for the public at large, including business communities, to weigh in and support any initiative for long-term housing, the better, and I think council should consider that,” says Theodora Lamb of Strathcona BIA.

BC Housing Vancouver currently has 4,000 people on its waitlist. When asked if any of Strathcona’s 900 businesses—specifically hotels or storage facilities—would partner with the city to provide housing solutions, Lamb says the needs of business owners still need to be respected.

“We want solutions to be effective, and if we’re talking about businesses being invited to participate in solutions, that conversation would have to look like an open and understanding dialogue between the city, citizens, BIA’s and BC Housing.”

The dialogue between Vancouver’s public and political organizations around the city’s homeless population has been consistent: The problem is not getting better and more needs to be done.

Any solutions are sure to cost everyone involved financially. In a recent tweet, Mayor Kennedy Stewart thanked the provincial government for funding $90-million to provide 606 modular homes for people. The original commitment was $66-million for this project, and there’s still pressure on the city to double its current stock of temporary modular housing.

BC Housing has demonstrated their ability to focus on the demand for shelter, rather than the calendar, when it comes to helping Vancouver’s most vulnerable. But the 2019 Homeless Count is an important date to remind everyone of the cost of time when permanent solutions are too far from the problem.