By Jenny Kwan
Welcome to the best place on Earth, where street homelessness has exploded by 367 percent and it is estimated that there are 10,000 to 15,000 people sleeping on the streets. Recent reports of homeless people dying in our streets reflect the direct outcome of years of public-policy failure. We also have had the worst child-poverty rate in the country for five years in a row. Minimum wages have not risen since 2001.
The police report that 30 percent of all service calls citywide are associated with people who have mental-health challenges. The 2008 Metro Vancouver homelessness count identified that 32 percent of homeless people are aboriginal.
B.C. has the highest poverty rates in the country. The poverty rate for single-parent families is 40 percent. The poverty rate for the aboriginal population is 36 percent, and for people with disabilities it is 30 percent. As of March 2008, there were 12,050 people on B.C. Housing’s wait list for subsidized housing. Somehow we don’t have the ability to address these issues, but we seem to find $900 million of public money for Olympic security without any questions being asked.
In 2001, when Gordon Campbell became premier, one of the Liberal government’s first acts was to cancel B.C.’s permanent affordable housing program. Approximately 2,000 units of affordable housing slated for development was cancelled. Our social safety net was gutted and legislation like the Safe Streets Act and Trespass Act was brought in. Now, on the eve of the 2010 Olympic Games, the Campbell government is desperate to sweep the poor and the homeless under the carpet, and as a result we have seen a rash of announcements and photo ops. All of a sudden, there is funding for temporary shelters and ad hoc initiatives. And coincidentally, street sweeps, which serve to criminalize underlying issues of poverty and mental health, were also accelerated by the Vancouver Police Department.
The litmus test for how well government is treating the most vulnerable is most apparent in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada, the Downtown Eastside. Our community is more desperate than ever, and it has not recovered from those devastating policy blows. The additional market distortion created by the speculative environment of the 2010 Olympics led to massive property value increases of SRO housing units from about a half million dollars to well over $2 million in some cases. Despite the government’s purchase of some SRO hotels, there have been over 1,300 conversions of low-income rental units in the Downtown Eastside.
In addition, the province has continued to have one-sided tenancy legislation which allows owners to evict tenants far too easily. The current legislative framework will easily lead to hundreds more evictions leading up to 2010 in places like the West End, the Downtown Eastside, and Commercial Drive.
In a few weeks, funding for the five temporary shelters will run out at the end of March. As well, the 12 sites which were identified for social housing in the City of Vancouver have not been provided with resources to begin construction. The athletes’ village social-housing units are now under threat due to the mismanagement of that project.
Without a comprehensive plan to address homelessness, Premier Campbell and Housing Minister Rich Coleman seem to think that they can fix everything as they move from photo op to photo op with a fragmented and illogical plan to address the root causes of this crisis. With more and more public money being spent to deal with Olympic cost overruns, the lack of investment in important areas such as social housing and a poverty reduction strategy is glaringly apparent. That is why even the most conservative estimate has B.C. with over 10,500 homeless people.
It is important to note that the Downtown Eastside should not be placed in a position to absorb the entire region’s social problems. Services should be distributed around the region. But it is also incorrect to blame the organizations based in the Downtown Eastside for four decades of municipal NIMBYism in the region.
The tendency of media and other commentators to talk about a “poverty industry” is out of context and dehistoricized. The situation that exists today has been created through misguided public policy and cross-jurisdictional political agendas that do not stand the test of time.
We need to deal with this situation immediately, or we will no doubt be having the same civic debate 10 years from now. It is better to invest now, rather than deal with the financial and human impacts of homelessness later on.
We have an obligation not to perpetuate this vicious cycle because too many lives have been lost and too many neighbourhoods have been traumatized by inappropriate policy interventions.
We need to re-engage in a process where the federal, provincial, and municipal governments and other institutions such as the Vancouver Police Board, Vancouver Coastal Health, and Metro Vancouver are at the table for the long term. Most importantly, the community must be consulted and civil-society organizations must be given the resources to be equal players at the table. Without that trust and respect, we will continue to spin our wheels.
More specifically, governments should heed the advice of international experts such as former UN special rapporteur on housing Miloon Kothari, and experts on the impact of hallmark events such as Kris Olds and Claire Mahon, who all argue that Vancouver should follow the precautionary principle and overreach when it comes to tenancy protections and ensuring a social-housing legacy from the 2010 Olympics.
The cornerstone of any solution in the Downtown Eastside must be embedded in human rights and health. Without these principles being respected, this will not be a neighbourhood where economic development plans or public-safety initiatives will be successful over the long term.
My five-year-old child asked me the other day—why is that person sleeping on the street? Doesn’t he have a home? Why can’t someone give him a home? To be honest, I don’t really know how to answer that. After all, homelessness is not like cancer; there is a cure for it. It’s called building affordable housing.
Jenny Kwan is the NDP’s critic for homelessness and mental health, and the MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant.