Normally, you won’t see a group of homeless people congregating on the plaza outside the luxurious Pan Pacific Vancouver Hotel and the Vancouver Convention Centre. But on October 2, several homeless people and their supporters gathered there to send a message to Premier Gordon Campbell, who was about to give a speech inside at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.
The first speaker on the plaza, Wendy Pedersen of the Carnegie Community Action Project, began with some facts. Speaking into a megaphone, she pointed to the convention centre’s west building, which cost $883 million to construct. She said that this amount would have paid for 4,250 deluxe inner-city homes for those who can’t compete in the “hyper real-estate market”.
Pedersen then moved on to the cost of Olympic security. She said that this amount—nearly a billion dollars—would have paid for nearly 5,000 homes. Next, she reminded the 15 or so people gathered on the plaza that two years ago, Campbell announced the creation of a new $250-million housing-endowment fund.
“Guess where that money is now?” Pedersen asked. “It’s in the bank. It’s not being spent on housing. That $250 million would buy 1,200 units of decent, wonderful housing right now.”
According to the B.C. government, the fund generates investment revenue of $10 million per year. B.C. Housing states on its Web site that over $20 million has been allocated to more than 40 housing initiatives.
Homelessness Action Week, which begins on Sunday (October 11), will focus additional public attention on the shortage of affordable housing across the province. Locally, the Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness is coordinating a range of events to connect the public with homeless people and highlight the fact that Canada is the only G8 country that lacks a national housing strategy.
The committee’s cochair, Alice Sundberg, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that such a strategy would include national standards and, ideally, federal funds flowing to the provinces to help them provide affordable housing. She said this doesn’t imply that there must be a uniform approach across the country. Sundberg emphasized that so much more could be done—including providing federal tax incentives to the private sector—to spur the development of affordable rental housing.
“We’re really promoting the connection between the need for affordable housing and an affordable-housing strategy and homelessness,” Sundberg said. “We say homelessness is about poverty; it’s about a lack of affordable housing.”
She said the key is recognizing the diversity of the homeless population. She cited the example of aboriginal people, who have a homelessness rate 15 times greater than that of the rest of the population. Sundberg said their needs should be addressed differently than those of homeless young people, who tend to stay overnight with friends, or single moms, who might be inclined to avoid coming in contact with service agencies for fear of having their children apprehended.
The committee coordinates a count of homeless people in the region every three years. In 2008, volunteers identified nearly 2,700 people living without permanent shelter in Metro Vancouver. “We might be counting 50 to 60 percent of the people [who are homeless],” Sundberg said.
According to Pedersen, there are between 12,000 and 15,000 homeless people across B.C., including 700 in her Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. In front of the crowd outside the Pan Pacific, she cited questions she would like to ask the premier. How does he plan to deal with the 5,000 people living in single-room-occupancy hotel rooms, which she described as “the crappiest housing conditions in Canada”? “And what is he going to do for the kids in Strathcona at the elementary school?” Pedersen asked. “Their parents are choosing between whether they’re paying their rent or whether they’re feeding their kids.”
Then she stepped aside so the crowd could hear from homeless people and people at risk of losing their suites. The next speaker, Norm Brun, described how up until seven weeks ago, he was the resident manager of a seedy, bug-infested hotel in the Downtown Eastside. He said he wasn’t proud of evicting people illegally, forging documents, and committing other illegal acts on behalf of a slumlord. Brun claimed that when he gave 30 days’ notice that he was quitting, he was immediately evicted, even though he had been paying rent.
“That night, I ended up in hospital,” he said. “Since then, I’ve undergone triple-bypass surgery. After being released from hospital, I’ve been staying in a homeless shelter.”
Brun said that since leaving the hospital two-and-a-half weeks earlier, pretty much the only thing he has done is fill out forms of one sort or another. The previous day, he was at a B.C. Housing office in Burnaby, where he was given two more booklets to complete.
“Hopefully, I’ll get an apartment before I use up all the quarter-million dollars that the government just finished spending to fix me up,” he joked to applause from the other protesters.
The next speaker, Clyde Wright, is an aboriginal man and member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. He called for more homes to be built rather than jails. “The municipalities—the governments—are causing the homelessness, and they’re not doing anything to alleviate the problem.”
Wright then passed the megaphone to Hugh Lemkin. “My SRO is not as bad as some,” he acknowledged, “but it’s pretty bad when I have to share my apartment with mice and cockroaches and little critters.”¦We have too many people living on the streets and too many people living in infested homes.”
Another speaker, Laura Shaver, said she also lives in a Downtown Eastside single-room-occupancy hotel. “I’m actually a little embarrassed talking to you here because I’m itching so bad from the bedbugs living in my suite,” she admitted. Shaver added that she would like to live in one of the homes the premier has promised to build.
The final speaker, Stacey Bonenfant, described herself as a single mother living with three kids in social housing. “I know parents who live in vans with their children, and try to get them to school on time,” she said. “A decent house would make a huge difference to a family.”
Inside the convention centre were hundreds of municipal and provincial politicians. The only one who attended the rally outside was Jenny Kwan, the NDP MLA for Vancouver–Mount Pleasant. In an interview with the Straight immediately after the rally, she said the provincial government should fund a permanent housing program that would develop a minimum of 1,200 affordable-housing units a year.
Kwan questioned why the federal and provincial governments aren’t using public funds to build new housing as part of their economic-stimulus programs. “I have yet to hear Gordon Campbell and the Liberals say that British Columbia needs a national housing program,” Kwan said. “That’s what Gordon Campbell should be saying to Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. It’s not good enough to have one-off announcements here and there.”
Inside the convention centre, Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman told the Straight that his government created a B.C. housing strategy in 2006. He said that it’s “somewhat of a moot discussion” to talk about a national housing strategy when the housing needs in a province like Saskatchewan—with its different climate and large First Nations population—are different from those in Toronto or Montreal or the Maritimes. “So we designed our strategy for British Columbia, and it’s working,” Coleman said.
He also stated that of the 14 sites that the province has slated for social housing in Vancouver, two are under construction and four others are fully funded and are in the predevelopment stage. Six more projects will be developed next year, he promised. Coleman halted the interview as the premier began speaking to delegates at the convention. During his 50-minute address, Campbell did not mention the word housing once.