Homeless in Vancouver: Housing First, Donald Trump, and why L.A. limits amount of garbage a homeless person owns

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      In Los Angeles, California, so many homeless people are crowding non-homeless people that this U.S. city actually passed a law in March limiting the amount of belongings that homeless people can legally store in and on public property—to what fits in a trash bin!

      This sounds harsh but the City of Los Angeles believes that it’s being quite fair, under the circumstances. The Los Angeles Times quotes an L.A. city councilor as explaining that the law balances the “city’s need for safe and clean streets with homeless people’s personal property rights”.

      Extreme homelessness leads to extreme laws

      The L.A. law in question is a revision to Section 56.11 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code and limits storage in and on city property—sidewalks, parks and alleys—to what homeless people can fit in a 227-litre (60-gallon) container, with the lid closed.

      That’s about equal, by the way, to what fits into one of Vancouver’s wheeled organic waste bins, the majority of which have a capacity of 242 litres, or 64 gallons.

      That’s not much space at all but the L.A. Times explains how L.A. city council nearly restricted homeless possessions to what fits in a backpack before finally opting instead for the larger capacity of a trash bin.

      And I should add that the 60-gallon limit generously exempts constructed tents, operational bicycles, walkers, crutches, and wheelchairs.

      However, as 56.11 is worded, it appears that the City of Los Angeles can use it without amendments to restrict homeless people to a backpack’s-worth of possessions in the future.

      When a city realizes homelessness is never going away

      In the “Declaration of Legislative Intent”, the revised 56.11 is described as a law to essentially allow public areas to be used as intended by “residents and public at large”, while also allowing “individuals, who have no other alternatives…to retain access to a limited amount of personal property in public areas”.

      The declaration is carefully worded to characterize the storage of personal possessions as an “unauthorized use of public areas”. It also only explicitly recognizes that the city’s “vulnerable homeless population needs access to a manageable amount of essential property for their personal use and well-being” (italics are mine).

      Under “definitions”, 56.11 defines “Essential Personal Property” as:

      “…any and all Personal Property that cumulatively is less than two cubic feet in volume, which, by way of example, is the amount of property capable of being carried within a backpack”.

      I read this to mean that Los Angeles is keeping this smaller limit as an option for the future.

      The currently allowed amount of homeless property is actually defined under “Excess Personal Property” as:

      “any and all Personal Property that cumulatively exceeds the amount of property that could fit in a 60-gallon container with the lid closed.”

      In the above definition we glimpse the not-so-explicitly stated purpose of the 60-gallon rule, which is to set a limit to what the city is legally obliged not to throw away when and if it confiscates a homeless person’s publicly stored possessions.

      The other purpose of the law is to regulate how, when and where homeless people can store their personal possessions and likewise erect tents and makeshift shelters on and in public spaces.

      In regard to tents and makeshift shelters, the L.A. law is quite analogous to B.C. Supreme Court rulings regulating how and when homeless people in Victoria and Abbotsford are allowed to sleep under makeshift shelters in public parks.

      The L.A. law says that “No Person shall erect, configure or construct a Tent in any Public Area from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. (except during rainfall or when the temperature is below 50 degrees Fahrenheit [10° Celsius])”. Also that such tents in public areas must be taken down between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m., except when it’s raining or the temperature is below 10° Celsius.

      The L.A. law bans any makeshift structure being attached to either public or private property and it lays down the rules for how the city can remove such structures and/or homeless possessions that interfere with public right-of-way.

      By any measure this is an an extreme law, driven by extreme and chronic homelessness.

      Moderation in the pursuit of housing is no virtue

      How extreme is the homelessness in Los Angeles, you ask? Well, as of 2016, 28,000 people are estimated to be living rough on the streets of L.A.

      And while 28,000 is only 0.736 percent of the city’s 3.8 million population (as of 2013) it still means that one out of every 135.7 Angelenos is homeless, which is an 11 percent jump from 2015.

      By comparison, Vancouver’s 2016 homeless count of 1,847—against its population of 603,500 (as of 2011)—gives Vancouver a per capita homelessness rate of one in 326.7—nearly 60 percent lower than L.A.

      According to the Los Angeles Times, in 2016, some 4,700 of L.A.’s total homeless population was counted in the 15.12 square kilometres of downtown L.A.—that’s about 311 homeless people per square kilometre!

      No wonder Los Angeles declared a homelessness “state of emergency” in 2015!

      The future of homelessness in Vancouver?

      Personally, when I look at homelessness in a West Coast American city like Los Angeles, it’s easy to imagine that I’m looking into the future of my own West Coast city of Vancouver, Canada.

      Los Angeles is arguably a good 10 or 15 years ahead of Vancouver—in terms of overall population and homeless population. Not to mention the length of time that it, as well as the entire United States, has been actively trying to “solve” its homeless problem using the same Housing First model that is currently being adopted here in Vancouver.

      The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which oversees annual nationwide homeless counts, estimated that about 500,000 American were homeless in 2015, which, says HUD, is down slightly from 2014.

      As huge as this number may be, it probably underestimates the true scale of homelessness in the U.S.

      I say that because HUD’s homeless estimates are derived from 24-hour Point-in-Time counts, which can only record the homelessness that is in plain sight at the time when—and in the places where— enumerators are looking.

      Still, half-a-million homeless people (HUD says a quarter of that number is children) is a shamefully high number. It’s nearly enough to fill a city the size of Vancouver and it’s far too much Third World poverty for a developed country as rich as the United States.

      Trying to pull a rabbit from a Hat

      Years of large-scale application of Housing First strategies have not begun to end homelessness in the United States and small-scale applications have likewise, so far as I know, failed to eliminate homelessness in any city, including the city of Medicine Hat here in Canada.

      People may remember the breathless media coverage of Medicine Hat, Alberta, through the first four months of 2015. As the little city vowed to use Housing First to eliminate homelessness, the media explained how easy it was going to be, then how the city was getting closer and finally in May, how the city had done it—under headlines like, “Medicine Hat becomes the first city in Canada to eliminate homelessness” and “Medicine Hat eradicates homelessness” and so on.

      However, the media did not stick around to see how Medicine Hat’s homeless shelters were overflowing by December of 2015. In February of 2016, the city blamed the upsurge in homelessness on the economic downturn in Alberta, which was probably true but beside the point.

      Five months later, in June, Medicine Hat was back to claiming that it had ended homelessness, saying that people staying in shelters were not homeless.

      Actually, as residents posting to the Medicine Hat subreddit more accurately put it, the city used Housing First to reduce its homeless population, which is a very good thing but it’s not the same as eliminating it.

      What Housing First is and is not

      Before I  go any further, I should describe the basic tenets of Housing First, as I understand them:

      • Drug addiction and mental illness should not be barriers to receiving housing.
      • Giving people housing and paying the rent costs governments far less than paying the policing, health, and other social costs associated with leaving people homeless.
      • Homeless people should  be given housing first, independent of any other services, such as treatment for drug addictions.

      I cannot disagree with the commitment of Housing First advocates to getting homeless people off the streets and under a roof.

      I do, however, disagree with all the Housing First calculations designed to paint homeless people such as myself as costing society ridiculous sums ($41,864, $55,000, or $448,767) annually. All such numbers used to make the “business case” for ending homelessness (which is one of Housing First’s big innovations) are the worst kind of junk statistics.

      As the SF Gate website put it, when debunking such claims in June of this year, “No, San Francisco Does Not Spend $36,000 Per Year On Every Homeless Person“.

      Housing First and then…?

      In a market economy the only real freedom, I believe, comes from being able to pay your own way, one way or another. Therefore, to my mind, the only thing that really ends homelessness for a person is whatever facilitates their becoming financially self-sufficient—having I.D., a real job, a bank account, paying their own rent, and being entirely free of government assistance.

      Everything that I’ve listed above is secondary to the Housing First model, which, as its name implies, is focused on first getting homeless people in long-term, government-funded housing.

      The Housing First model describes housing as providing the stability needed to address issues such as unemployment, addiction, mental illness, physical health, and so on. And this is true, in theory.

      But what people do (or do not do) after they’re housed is entirely up to them. Housing First is not about pressuring people to change. Addressing other life skill issues is up to other social programs.

      Once it has gotten a person fixed up on welfare or disability and slotted into government-funded housing, it has done it job by reduced homelessness by one.

      Harm reduction for homelessness

      It occurs to me, that although Housing First is described as the solution to homelessness, it only seems designed to set the stage for other services to address the nonhousing issues behind a person’s homeless.

      Perhaps it would be more accurate to frame Housing First as being to homelessness what the harm reduction strategy of a safe-injection site is to drug addiction, namely a good part of the solution to a social problem but only one part.

      Vancouver’s famous Insite safe injection facility, for example, is the harm reduction component of what was supposed to be a Four Pillars drug strategy. Insite performs its harm reduction role perfectly—having never lost a single injection drug user to an overdose. But Insite is not responsible for filling the other three roles, of prevention, treatment or enforcement.

      Perhaps I’m doing to Housing First what I’ve seen critics of Vancouver’s street drug strategy do to Insite, namely blaming the one component for the shortcomings, or lack altogether, of other necessary components.

      If I am then it’s the fault of Housing First for posing as a complete solution to homelessness.

      Warehousing homeless people

      For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, Housing First as practised here in Vancouver appears to be as much if not more about warehousing drug-addicted and mentally ill homeless people at perpetual government expense than actually empowering them to become self-supporting members of society.

      I say “appears” because I’m just one person, seeing things from a limited vantage point.

      Certainly I hope that Housing First acts a first step that leads many formerly homeless people to move beyond their former street lives toward something more productive and self-fulfilling. Unfortunately, I’m personally unaware of one homeless people who has done so.

      No homeless person that I know, who has been given Housing First housing, has gone on to even get a job. The only homeless people I know who have gone into Housing First housing and then given up binning, panhandling, or drugs, have done so because they have grown too old or have died.

      Is it that I just don’t know the right sort of homeless people? Or maybe there just isn’t anywhere near enough effective, evidence-based drug treatment here in Vancouver?

      Or perhaps welfare rates are so low in British Columbia that formerly homeless Housing Firsters can’t break free of their habitual daily panhandling/binning routine because, even in housing, they have the same desperate daily need to earn money—to buy cigarettes, coffee, food (not to mention alcohol and drugs)—that they did when they were homeless.

      Who’s to say? I just know a lot of formerly homeless people in Housing First housing who are effectively still homeless in every behaviour except that they now have a better sleeping spot at government expense, when, that is, they choose to make use of it.

      Treating the symptoms of homelessness

      American and Canadian Housing First advocates say that the strategy works to end homelessness but I’m not convinced that this is true. Reducing it temporarily? Sure. Ending it? Unlikely.

      Ending homelessness would require dealing with its root social causes. Housing First is rather a Band-Aid solution that only treats the symptoms of homelessness (lack of housing).

      And even the way Housing First treats the symptoms of homelessness seems rather unsustainable to me. I mean, because it is not about returning homeless people to financial self-sufficiency, it appears to work only as long as governments are willing to keep paying the rent for a lot of formerly homeless people who will never work again.

      What—I have asked myself for the last three years—is to stop a new administration from being elected, that chooses not to keep paying?

      Can Housing First survive Donald Trump?

      Now, I may get my answer in the United States, where the Housing First rapid-rehousing model grew out of the Pathways to Housing movement in 1992 and where Housing First strategies, including annual nation-wide Point-in-Time homeless counts, have been at the heart of the U.S. government’s strategy to end homelessness for well over a decade.

      In the United States (as in Canada) Housing First gathers much of its strength from federally funded programs, which in the U.S. are under the auspices of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

      We all know who will be setting the agenda for HUD and appointing its next secretary—the incoming U.S. president, Donald Trump, that’s who.

      Now, I have no concrete idea how Trump feels about the U.S. government paying to keep people from being homeless but I can well imagine.

      Let me put it this way, I will be that much closer to being a believer in Housing First if it survives Donald Trump but I’m not holding my breath.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.