Federal and provincial pittances respond to highest homeless count ever: By Jean Swanson

Homeless graphic
Homeless graphic by CCAP (Carnegie Community Action Project)

ARGH!  Vancouver has the highest ever homeless count and no one with power seems to think it’s a problem!  It’s a problem that people who “don’t have a million” can’t afford to buy a house in Vancouver.  But people who are homeless?  The people who have half the life expectancy as other British Columbians?  We’ll just wake them up every morning with cops and city workers threatening to throw their stuff into nearby dumpsters and telling them to move on.

This is actually the scene that unfolds every day at Gore and Hastings across the street from the BC Housing office that is supposed to find housing for people with mental health and addiction issues.  I went in a few weeks ago and asked a very nice man there what he could do for me if I were homeless.  ”I could give you a list of shelters,” he said.  I had just read the city’s homeless count power point which said that the turnaway rate at permanent shelters had increased 58% last year and at temporary shelters by 130%.  So I knew a list of shelters didn’t mean I would necessarily be able to find a mat on a floor for a few hours.  So I asked, “What about real housing?”  ”There’s a 3 year wait list,” replied the nice man who was sitting behind a strong plastic barrier with only a few tiny holes in it so he could hear.

In Vancouver 1126 of the 1847 homeless people counted in 2016 (and everyone admits this is an undercount) were new to homelessness in the last year.  What is it that is churning out so many homeless people?  Low welfare rates would be one thing. People on welfare and disability get only $375 a month for rent.  Say you’re laid off from your job, can’t get employment insurance because you haven’t worked long enough, so you have to go to welfare.  First you have to wait 5 weeks after you apply before you can get on, then you only get $375 a month for shelter.  Chances are you could lose whatever housing you started with.  Or say you’re a foster child who turns 19 and there is no support for you and you can’t get a high enough paying job right away.  Welfare again, and not enough money for rent.  Or say you become disabled?  Disability only pays $375 for rent.  Homeless again.  Or even a minimum wage worker.  Where are you going to find a place to rent for $543 a month, which is about what all levels of government say you should pay with your full time $10.45 an hour job.

Gentrification would be another huge problem.  SRO hotels, historically the last resort before homelessness, are being bought up by profit seeking owners who get rid of tenants by harrassment, legal or illegal evictions, or buyouts, then raise the rents as much as they like.  So the average rent in privately owned and run SRO hotels, according to a report by the Carnegie Community Action Project, is now $517 a month.  And you don’t even get a private bathroom.

What is the city doing about this?  Encouraging gentrification by putting higher densities in lower income neighbourhoods. This pushes up property values, taxes and rents, and low income folks get displaced. The city has also redefined social housing so that now, only 5.5 % of the new social housing they claim to have facilitated is guaranteed to be affordable to people on welfare or disability.

And the province?  They have announced a $50 million contribution to social housing this year, portraying the amount as historic.  But $50 million will only build 250 units on city owned land across the province.  In the 70s and 80s, about 2000 units of social housing were built annually in BC.  If Vancouver, with 13% of the province’s population, got 13% of the provincial housing money this year, that could build about 33 units.  33 units to house 1847 homeless people.

The feds say BC can have about $75 million for housing this year.  If it were all used for social housing, and if Vancouver got 13% of that, it could mean about 49 new units.  Meanwhile, provincial welfare, minimum wage and foster child policies are busy churning out hundreds more homeless people every year.

What is the provincial opposition NDP doing about this?  Having a town hall or two for the “don’t have a million crowd.”  Where is their plan to end homelessness?

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