It's just one of the questions that citizens will attempt to tackle at this Sunday's (June 23) COPE-organized Housing Emergency Summit.

Workers, evictees, renters, community leaders and activists are banding together for Vancouver’s first Housing Emergency Summit to identify solutions for the city's growing homelessness crisis.

Last week, the city of Vancouver released the staggering findings from the 2019 Homeless Count, which reveal that a record number of 2,223 homeless people live in Vancouver. It makes Vancouver the municipality with the highest per capita rate of homelessness in Canada.

These statistics have inspired the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) to host a people’s summit on Sunday (June 23), where citizens can work together to determine what’s causing Vancouver’s homelessness population to surge, and how to instigate real solutions for the growing problem.

COPE’s sole representative at city hall, councillor Jean Swanson, will speak at the summit, along with OneCity councillor Christine Boyle. During both women’s seven-month tenure in civic politics, Vancouver has opened 600 temporary modular housing units.

“With homelessness going up in spite of the modular housing, the city has got to start looking at where we are losing units,” says Swanson, citing the loss of 300 units on the Downtown Eastside due to the closures of the Balmoral and Regent SRO hotels.

“Our homeless count probably would have been 300 less,” Swanson says, adding that the caveat would've been that both of those buildings were operating under horrible living and management conditions.

Despite the many housing initiatives underway in the city, the units that are replacing shuttered housing in the DTES are often unaffordable for the estimated 13,000 Vancouverites surviving on welfare, disability and pension payments.

Each year, Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) traces how rising rents, gentrification and building closures impact the DTES, a community historically reserved for lower-income people. At this Sunday's summit, the group will present some of the findings from its annual report, including recommendations for the city to implement vacancy control and to increase the $375 shelter allowance for income assistance.

“ have to go hand in hand,” says CCAP volunteer Fiona York. “If we provide more money for people to afford shelter with shelter-rate funding, there has to be a limit to what landlords can charge.”

Vacancy control would mean that every apartment or unit is rented at the same amount from one tenant to the next, taking away motivations for landlords to evict lower-income people in favour of higher-income tenants. But the provincial government doesn’t support vacancy control, arguing instead that social housing should be financially self-sufficient through “social mixing.”

This terminology, which refers to higher-income renters subsidizing lower-income renters' living within the same building, has been adopted in Vancouver policy in recent years.

“Social mixing is a philosophical idea that signals that housing is not an investment in the community, but rather a capitalist system,” says York, who believes that the concept misses the point. “If you’re providing social housing, why are you not just providing housing? Why do you need to charge more for it to pay for itself?”

Swanson agrees that renters should not be subsidizing renters.

“We desperately need a source of revenue for non-market housing,” Swanson says, adding that she is frustrated by the fact that, in seven months, council has not rezoned a single housing unit that could serve people earning under $30,000 per year. “Federal and provincial governments have access to income taxes, progressive and corporate taxes—they should be giving the city that revenue.”

Boyle, who will also speak at this weekend's summit, hopes the event will put pressure on the federal government to make a real commitment to helping Vancouver with its increasing homeless population.

“The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report, coupled with the homeless report, is a stark reminder of how much work we have left to do,” notes Boyle.

Thirty-nine percent of homeless people counted in 2019 were Indigenous, with 53 percent of all homeless women being Indigenous. “Given what we already know about the intersections of homelessness, racial inequality, aging and disabled populations, I’m pretty discouraged by the housing stock,” adds Boyle.

However, the OneCity councillor is encouraged by how heavily council’s work has been informed by organized advocacy groups during her time at city hall. In the same bleak week that the homeless report was presented, council unanimously approved new rules under the city’s Tenant Relocation and Protection Policy.

“People organizing and advocating around issues like renter rights, better tenant protection and more rental stock matters. It makes a difference,” says Boyle. “But change can’t just come out of decisions we make on city council.”

Swanson agrees, referencing her motion to protect rental housing stock along arterial streets, which was defeated by six votes last week.

“That shows the general makeup of council and where it’s at,” Swanson says. “That’s why it’s important to have this summit—to create enough pressure that we build a movement.”

Housing Emergency: Vancouver People's Summit

When: Sunday, June 23, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Where: Maritime Labour Centre (1880 Triumph St.)
Cost: Admission is by donation; no one will be turned away for lack of funds
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