It is no secret that Metro Vancouver has a problem with homelessness.
While it is difficult to get an exact count on the number of people affected by homelessness, a 2014 study conducted by the Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness estimated that 2,777 individuals in Metro Vancouver were without adequate housing or shelter on any given night. The same study said that approximately 5,900 people would be affected by homelessness over the course of the year.
These numbers are staggering and they are likely to be even higher than estimated. After all, this study only dealt with the “visible” homeless. It did not factor in those with no permanent home address, those who struggle with overcrowded living conditions, substandard housing, or unaffordable housing.
The problem is so bad that, in 2012, the City of Vancouver knew they had to do something. They unveiled a plan to deal with housing and homelessness issues. City council declared that they were committed to ending street homelessness by 2015 and sought to do this by creating more accessible and affordable housing options to meet the needs of all people, including those who suffer from mental illness and disabilities.
Although some positive strides have been made, it only takes one look around the city streets to know that this goal is far from being met.
We still have a very long way to go. With gentrification pushing many vulnerable populations out of the downtown core, homelessness is likely to worsen in the near future. Areas with previously non-existent or small homeless populations may see numbers increase—and with the vast majority of homeless people still heavily reliant on government-funded programs and social-service agencies to provide them with shelter, problems are inevitable. In many areas, demand for such services already exceeds supply, leaving the homeless population vulnerable to the elements and without anywhere to go.
In some cases, homeless people have taken matters into their own hands. They have erected temporary camp sites in order to provide themselves with reprieve and shelter from harsh weather conditions. While some argue that these sites are hazardous eye-sores, built contrary to city and municipal by-laws, advocates for the homeless have argued that they are necessary in order to meet the demand for shelters where the government has failed to provide them. Residents of Vancouver may recall the recent controversy surrounding the Oppenheimer homeless camp, which was ultimately dissembled in October 2014 following a court-ordered injunction.
In Abbotsford, an ongoing six-week Supreme Court trial is breathing new life into this issue. There, the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors is working with Pivot Legal Society to challenge city bylaws that prohibit the erection and use of survival shelters. This case is being heard in the shadow of the disgraceful actions that were recently undertaken by Abbotsford city officials and police officers in an attempt to displace homeless residents. This included using bear spray on homeless people’s belongings, slashing tents, and spreading bio-hazardous material on long-standing camp sites. To see public officials engaging in this kind of behaviour is both sickening and illustrative of the extreme prejudices that the homeless population must deal with on a regular basis.
But with no less than 151 homeless in Abbotsford, and room for only 112 in shelter spaces, the reality is that many people are left on the street. Homeless residents are therefore arguing that it is their constitutional right to sleep in public parks and erect survival shelters to protect themselves where adequate housing and shelter spaces are not available. The city says otherwise. Ultimately, the decision will be left in the hands of the court.
Whatever the outcome, I believe that access to safe shelter is a basic human right that every person should be entitled to.
Canada is the only G8 country without a national housing plan. This is unacceptable. Homelessness is both a local and a national concern. It affects all Canadians and it deserves our attention. If anything, I hope that this case and others like it serve to motivate change. It is time that we acknowledge the basic dignity of all people and take action to provide the infrastructure and support necessary to provide our homeless population with basic necessities of life, such as a warm place to sleep.
All people deserve that much.