The homeless count for this year was the highest it’s ever been: 1803 homeless people in Vancouver, and 2,777 in the Metro Vancouver area. And even the counters say that is an undercount. The Oppenheimer Park and Abbotsford Dignity Village tenters show with their presence that what’s been done isn’t solving the housing crisis. All three levels of government must do more.
Vancouver’s goal of ending only street homelessness has had an unwanted side-effect: Until this year, most homeless people have been hidden in shelters. Not only are shelters expensive to run, they are not housing. People in them have little or no privacy, things get stolen, bed bugs get passed on. Often you have to leave in the morning and then wait in line in the evening to get back in. But when homeless people are hidden in shelters, people who aren’t homeless don’t notice them and stop pressing governments to take action.
So governments stopped acting. The federal government has pulled out of housing almost totally.
Many people think the province is building lots of housing. Since 2007 the province has funded social housing on 14 city owned sites for about 1400 units. That’s only 200 units a year! In the 1980’s the government built an average of 767 units of new social housing a year just in Vancouver. People think a lot of housing is being built because the same projects are announced over and over again and because a lot of government news releases brag about them.
While the city obsessed with the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan for 3 years, single room occupancy hotels, the last stop before homelessness, have been disappearing as low-income housing. These are single rooms, often 10 feet by 10 feet, with a bathroom down the hall and no kitchen. Often they are poorly managed and have mice, rats, bedbugs and cockroaches. It’s hard to live in an SRO and keep a job, get sleep, and eat cheaply. But because the Vancouver housing situation is so expensive, private investors have been buying up the hotels, evicting the low-income residents, renovating them slightly and then raising rents to the $550 to $1000 range. No one should have to live in an SRO but until there are alternatives, the city needs to use its powers to keep rents down and ensure decent maintenance.
The Oppenheimer Park campers are making homelessness visible again, showing how urgent the need for social housing is. No one should have to be homeless on the street or in a shelter, or live in a crummy SRO. Now our job is to push the 3 levels of government to fast track more self contained social housing.