UN examines homelessness

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      A man lay fast asleep on a sidewalk of East Hastings Street when Miloon Kothari, the United Nations' special rapporteur on adequate housing, walked into Insite just one door away. It was about 8:45 a.m. on October 16, the first of the two-day official visit by the Geneva-based UN official to Vancouver.

      On a mission to assess housing conditions in Canada, Kothari had never been to the Downtown Eastside, often referred to as the poorest postal code in the country. Inside Insite, he asked a staff member how the first legally supervised injection facility in North America works, and whether or not homeless people with drug problems use its services. From there, he was driven around the neighbourhood before he started to receive reports from housing advocates and hear accounts from homeless people at a forum at SFU's downtown campus.

      According to Kothari, what he has seen and heard so far was "very disturbing".

      "It's quite clear that there's a major housing crisis here in Vancouver," Kothari told the Georgia Straight . "Much more needs to be done, both as an emergency response and a longer-term response–more housing options for people, including more transitional housing and social housing."

      Kothari also said that he finds it almost unbelievable that a rich country like Canada would have homeless people.

      "What is striking to me is the fact that you have such incredible wealth and prosperity that's just a few blocks away from so much poverty and social problems," he said. "I think it's really something that I'm trying to understand. I will be asking the government what is the reason why even a small part of the incredible sums of money generated by real estate and tourism cannot be put back into the system so that people do not have to live in these conditions."

      Kothari's visit couldn't have come at a better time for housing advocates who had designated October 15 to 21 as homelessness-action week. On October 14, Anti-Poverty Committee activists tried to occupy Burns Block, an abandoned former social-housing building on West Hastings Street, but were blocked by the police. On that same day, Christian group Streams of Justice started a squat on a city-owned lot at 950 Main Street.

      On October 12, B.C. Liberal premier Gordon Campbell announced that the provincial government is allocating $41 million in additional funding for housing initiatives. The amount will cover the 24-hour operation of emergency shelters, outreach services, rent supplements, and predevelopment costs for properties earmarked by the City of Vancouver for new supportive housing.

      But according to Howard Rotberg, a Vancouver-based developer, such a government response won't break the cycle of homelessness.

      Rotberg told the Straight that efforts must be made to increase the stock of modest-priced rental housing in the city. "If there's none of it being built, what's going to happen?" he said. "What's going to happen is the middle-class people are not going to be able to afford the high-priced condominiums, townhouses, and single-family homes, even if their income is $75,000 to $100,000. They're going to rent the apartments that formerly lower-income people were renting."

      Citing the example of Toronto, where he has done social-housing projects, Rotberg said that developers can be given grants to encourage them to put up housing projects for middle-income earners. "Unless you cultivate and grow your modest-priced rental sector, you're creating homelessness because people fall out of the bottom end of the market," he said.

      Over at 950 Main Street, the eight tents that had sprung up are providing temporary shelter for 15 homeless people, according to Kristen Wade, a Streams of Justice member.

      "The only way to solve homelessness is to build houses and also to increase welfare rates so that people can afford to live in the city," Wade told the Straight . "There isn't available housing for people, so they can't afford to have a roof over their heads. Houses are being built for rich people, and money is being spent on the Olympics, like the convention centre."

      Wade said that a Vancouver court will rule Friday (October 19) on whether or not the people in the tent compound can stay longer on the city property.

      On that day, Kothari will be in Toronto, his next stop after Vancouver. The UN official said that he will hold a news conference in Ottawa on Monday (October 22) about his preliminary findings. His full report to the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights about how Canada is taking care of its homeless is due in four to five months.



      joseph chan

      Oct 22, 2010 at 2:32am

      i hope they live up to the standard of Christians, the bible teaches us to love