Vancouver homeless shelters a mixed blessing

Recent announcements of funding for homeless-shelter programs have placed antipoverty advocates in a dicey position, activist Jean Swanson says.

On one hand, Swanson explained, it’s good that something is being done to get homeless people off the streets, especially this winter. Yet on the other hand, the coordinator of the Vancouver Downtown Eastside–based Carnegie Community Action Project noted, there are fears that moving people into shelters is just a way to stop them from demanding real housing.

“But when you do the math, the math would convince the province to start building right away, like supportive and regular housing,” Swanson told the Georgia Straight.

Swanson first addressed the $1.5 million joint funding announced on December 16 by Premier Gordon Campbell, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, and private-sector partner the Street to Home Foundation. This will create 200 temporary shelter beds for the next 90 days. This amounts to $83 per day per bed, according to Swanson’s calculation.

She then turned to the $709,000 provincial grant to the nonprofit group OPTIONS: Services to Communities Society for a new 10-bed shelter in Surrey. The funding was announced on December 11 by Housing Minister Rich Coleman. According to Swanson, this is equivalent to $194 a day per bed for a year.

For comparison, Swanson said that figures cited in an SFU study released early this year may be instructive about the economics of housing the homeless. Entitled “Housing and Support for Adults With Severe Addictions and/or Mental Illness in British Columbia”, the paper noted there are 11,750 adults with such problems across the province who are homeless.

The authors pointed out that it would take $179 million every year to house and support these people. This represents an annualized capital cost of $31 million to put up housing facilities, and the annual housing and support cost of $148 million.

To get an idea how much this would cost on a daily basis, the Straight divided $179 million by 11,750 people and 365 days, and came up with a $41 to $42 cost per day. This suggests that housing and supporting people who are most vulnerable is actually much cheaper than putting them into shelters.

One of the authors of the study didn’t think it was unreasonable to arrive at a $41 to $42 estimate.

“As an approximation, you could present the information that way,” SFU health sciences assistant professor Julian Somers told the Straight. “Clearly, these are estimates.”

Somers is also the director of SFU’s Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction. “Shelters also are not typically very expensive, but they’re short-term,” he said. “And when we start to get into the long-term solutions, housing where people can be stable for months and years, that’s when the costs start to go down. On average, we might wind up closer to our figure, the figure you cited of $41.”

Swanson noted that when Campbell talks about shelters, the premier claims that people in shelters can later transition to other types of housing.

“Well, what other housing?” Swanson asked. But in the meantime, social activists like her can’t say no to shelters in order to keep people on the streets to create demand for real housing. “You can’t say that because there are human beings suffering,” she said. “But that is a problem.”




Dec 23, 2008 at 4:12pm

The huge cost for all these temporary solutions is a good way to literally throw away millions of Vancouver tax dollars. What happens after the money runs out in a few months? No more shelters, and no starts on new long-term housing. How could it cost 1.5 million dollars for 200 cots for 3 months? That is exceedingly expensive! Does Vision think it has unlimited funds to throw at temporary solutions?