Nearly two months ago, former NDP leader Jack Layton died after a battle with cancer. But his influence is still being felt in the streets of Vancouver, where his passion for addressing homelessness has influenced city council’s point man on the issue.
Vision Vancouver’s Kerry Jang told the Georgia Straight in a recent phone interview that Layton helped frame his thinking about the issue. “He really trained a generation of us to look at homelessness as a health issue from the get-go—and taking the politics right out of it,” Jang said.
The Vancouver civic politician spoke about this issue with Layton on numerous occasions. The NDP leader advised Jang, a UBC professor of psychiatry, to put himself in the homeless person’s shoes, and then ask: what would get me off the street? “He was very clear with me and others in saying we can tell them ‘Father knows best’ all you like, but that’s not necessarily going to work,” Jang revealed. “We still see this attitude with the province in some ways in their homeless action plans. We deliberately put ourselves in the feet of a homeless person.”
Following Layton’s death, Penguin Canada reissued his book Homelessness: How to End the National Crisis, which was updated in 2008. Layton wrote the first edition while he was on Toronto city council, and dedicated it to a homeless man, Eugene Upper, who froze to death in his neighbourhood. Layton and his wife, Olivia Chow, were in the area on the night he died.
“A shiver ran down my spine,” Layton wrote. “Is there anything more awful for a Canadian to imagine than freezing to death? How could this have happened in Toronto? Were there no shelters? Were there no emergency services for the homeless?”
From there, Layton immersed himself in housing research, spoke to numerous community activists, and traced the history of policies that led to several homeless people’s deaths in Toronto. And then he travelled across the country talking to people like Jang proselytizing about fixing the problem.
“I cried when he died,” Jang admitted, saying that Layton’s tutelage has energized him to keep focusing on the issue. Layton’s legacy can be seen in Vancouver city council’s decision to create three low-barrier, 365-day-a-year shelters, which accept people with dogs or shopping carts. Jang noted that people are permitted to stay in these facilities even if they’re drunk or high on drugs, as long as they behave.
Over the past three years, Jang said the number of people sleeping in Vancouver’s streets has fallen from more than 800 to just 145. And he maintained that there are also fewer homeless people showing up in hospital-emergency rooms or committing homeless-related crimes, such as trespassing. “Once you’re inside the shelter, you get to be stable,” Jang said, “because they give you the health care and all that kind of stuff.”
He suggested the next step is to ensure there is sufficient “workforce housing” to help them become more independent. He said the redevelopment of the American Hotel in the Downtown Eastside is one example, where some of the rents were kept at a lower rate to maintain affordability. He added that there are also about 80 units of interim housing at Dunsmuir House, which was done in partnership with B.C. Housing.
Jang’s comments came during the sixth annual Homelessness Action Week, which continues across the region until Sunday (October 16). “We’re so close to ending homelessness in Vancouver,” he said. “It’s like I can taste it. We just have to make sure we get those last few off the street.”