David Mark Bolton is a Tsimshian artist and trained carpenter who lives in a tent with his girlfriend in a park near the Downtown Eastside. On the morning of November 18, he was hanging out on the corner of Main and Hastings streets. A year ago, Bolton was working in the oil fields of Fort St. John. He was attacked after work and someone slashed the inside of his left fingers, severing the muscles and tendons. He came to Vancouver for several surgeries, but he doesn’t have a safe place to heal. After a year on the street, he told the Straight, he’s trying to keep off booze. But his hand isn’t healing, due to the constant violence he experiences in the area, so he can’t work. His fingers are swollen and deformed.
"We’re workers," he said of himself and his long-time girlfriend, Elsie John. "All we want is a place to rent, to do our carvings, and we’ll be there for the rest of our lives. But we can’t find a place. I’m still on welfare because my disability hasn’t come through yet."
Vancouver’s mayor-elect, Gregor Robertson, has vowed to end street homelessness by 2015. If it comes to pass, Bolton and the rest of those living between tents and shelters and church pews will have permanent homes in just seven years. However, as several advocates told the Straight, Robertson can’t do it on his own through city hall. It’s the province that controls welfare rates; how mental-health services are delivered; funding for schools; land claims; and alcohol- and drug-treatment programs. Plus, of course, direct funding for building social housing.
"My first step is to strike an emergency task force on homelessness to look at implementing immediate action steps to get people off the streets and into temporary housing or shelter," Robertson told the Straight in a phone interview. "That urgency has been missing for too many years."
Recently defeated NPA candidate Michael Geller told the Straight Robertson has two problems: first, getting everyone housed in permanent, safe homes; second, getting those without homes off the streets today. His 1970 master’s thesis was on modular homes as a temporary solution to an urban housing crisis; he thinks they should be set up on vacant downtown lots, such as the area behind the bus station.
"We [the province] are actually building 3,800 permanent homes," he said. "But it takes two to three years or longer to get approval and build long-term housing.”¦It’s going to take quite a while to get these units. We have some immediate problems that need to be addressed."
Robertson said that Geller expressed "intriguing" ideas during the campaign. "I’m hoping to work with him on solutions on affordable housing and homelessness," Robertson said.
However, Wendy Pedersen, coordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project, rolled her eyes at the suggestion of modular homes. In an interview at a Powell Street coffee shop, she said a better immediate solution is to halt the demolition of the Little Mountain social housing, halt the removal of renters in the West End, get the province to institute rent controls, and open the 450 units of empty housing she claims are in the Downtown Eastside. Ultimately, she said, the power rests with the province.
"The [B.C. Liberal] government cancelled the social-housing program in 2001 for the poor," Pedersen said. "Now they just build supportive housing [for seniors and people with disabilities]. So we need to reinstate the social-housing program and the federal housing program [which was cancelled in 1993]."
As for Ann Livingston of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, she’s concerned that Robertson’s plan could hurt those living on the streets.
"He wants more police officers," Livingston told the Straight. "We had a meeting with him about police before he ran, and he was pretty quiet. We don’t want to solve the homelessness problem through throwing people in jail."
Livingston said the City should be more hands-on; she compared Robertson’s pledge to end homelessness with Larry Campbell’s promise to end the open drug market and introduce a safe injection site. She recalled that VANDU’s understanding was that Campbell would make the site happen; later, she said, Campbell told her that he planned to lobby Ottawa.
Bolton’s biggest concern about homelessness is the drug market near Terrace. The farther north you go, he said, the more the drugs are cut with poison. People go crazy, he said. The safety of illegal drugs, however, is no one’s jurisdiction.
B.C. is homeless country
> About 130,000 British Columbians have a severe addiction and/or a mental illness. That is three percent of the population.
> Of those, 11,750 are homeless.
> Another 18,759 are at imminent risk of homelessness.
> 23 percent of Natives are homeless, and 41 percent are at risk.
> As of December 31, 2006, there were 7,741 beds available to the severely addicted and/or mentally ill in B.C. That meets about 25 percent of the need.
> A person living on the street with a severe addiction and/or mental illness costs the province $55,000 per year, not including health-related expenses.
> With adequate housing and support, that drops to $37,000 per person per year, with a provincial "cost avoidance" of $211 million per year.
Source: SFU’s Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction