What is going on in Vancouver?
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In 2008 Gregor Robertson and the centre-left Vision Vancouver party were elected to power in the City of Vancouver. Their campaign against the centre-right Non-Partisan Association featured homelessness prominently; Robertson promised to make homelessness one of his top three priorities as mayor, and that he would end street homelessness by 2015.
This promise to end street homelessness came after a man named Darrell Mickasko died on the streets of Vancouver. Mickasko died a few blocks from a homeless shelter where he and his girlfriend had tried to spend the night. The shelter was full, so Mickasko ended up burning to death in a make-shift shelter he constructed on the streets that night. Robertson entered municipal politics with the conviction that no one should die on the streets of Vancouver, and that no one should live or sleep on the streets either.
Upon election, he acted immediately in the area of homelessness. His plan involved rapidly opening a number of low-barrier homeless shelters, which were open 24 hours a day, allowing people to enter and exit the shelter at whatever hour of the day they needed to. Robertson also introduced an ambitious ten-year affordable housing plan in 2010.
The first homeless counts following his election showed success at first glace; there was a significant drop in street homelessness by 2010. But this drop was accompanied by an almost exact rise in the number of sheltered homeless people. The act of moving people from streets into shelters can be an important step, if those shelters are safe and connect people to the services they need. But a lack of affordable housing and supports in Vancouver meant that the line between street and sheltered homelessness, for the chronically homeless at least, was thin and fluid. By 2015, the year Robertson had said there would be no more street homelessness, the homeless count showed that there was, in fact, more street and sheltered homelessness than in 2008 when he was first elected.
Critics are quick to point to Robertson’s failure, but his efforts to solve homelessness were significant and should not be underestimated. He opened a number of low-barrier shelters, which were very needed in the city; gave up valuable city land to partner with senior levels of government in the construction of affordable housing; bought hotels to be used as transitional housing; and aggressively used city powers, such as inclusionary zoning, to force the private sector to contribute to the affordable housing stock.
But these efforts, of course, were not enough. There are a number of theories for why homelessness continues to grow in Vancouver. Recent research by Julian Somers has found that approximately half of the chronically homeless population in Vancouver has come from outside of the city. This could be because of the high concentration of services in Vancouver, specifically in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, and because of less stigmatized attitudes regarding drug use and mental health. It is also likely a reflection of a lack of services in smaller communities in BC, and in the rest of the country as well.
But it is important to also note that the provincial government has also not always helped as much as it could. While the government of BC has been one of the most involved provincial governments in the area of housing, with a long history of innovation and intervention, its attitudes towards the poor have often been very punitive. For example, the province has a rental assistance program that helps people with low-incomes to afford private sector housing. But this program is only available to the working poor; families or individuals receiving social assistance benefits, including people with disabilities and families with young children, do not have access to this rental housing assistance.
Importantly, BC is the only province in Canada to have never even considered implementing a poverty reduction strategy; currently, all 9 other provinces either have a poverty reduction strategy or, in the case of Alberta, are in the process of developing one. The city and province are working together to build new units of affordable and supportive housing, and this has helped many people exit homelessness and find housing of their own. But this has not kept pace with the problems created by severe housing unaffordability and the highest poverty rates in the country.
The previous federal government invested in housing and homelessness, but not nearly at the scale that was needed in Vancouver. With the election of a new federal government that is firmly committed to funding infrastructure to the tune of $60 billion over the next 10 years, including affordable housing, the City of Vancouver has redoubled its efforts in the fight against homelessness. The City of Vancouver has recently offered to contribute 20 pieces of land, worth $250 million to a joint municipal-provincial-federal effort to build affordable housing. The city is hoping the province and federal governments will each contribute $500 million to the effort that will lead to the construction of 3,500 units of affordable housing. To put this in perspective, the City of Toronto, with a population that is four times larger than Vancouver, has offered five pieces of land to entice the federal government to build affordable housing, and has promised another 13 more in the future.
Robertson’s failed pledge is proof that the city alone cannot end homelessness. The federal government will introduce its budget shortly, and municipal leaders and homelessness activists will be watching very closely to see if the federal government will join them in their efforts at ending and preventing homelessness.
Alison Smith is a PhD Candidate at l’Université de Montréal. Her research is on homelessness in Canadian cities.