When residents hear a homeless shelter or supportive-housing facility is preparing to open in their neighbourhood, the reaction is often outrage.
Charles Gauthier, president and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA), told the Straight that’s what happened in the fall of 2014 when the city moved 227 people previously homeless into two sites located at 900 Pacific Street and 1335 Howe Street.
“I went to the meetings where there were quite heated debates and discussions,” he recounted in a telephone interview. Gauthier noted that initial response is so common there is a well-known acronym for it: NIMBY, short for "not in my backyard". But he argued that attitude isn’t justified by reality.
“We have the data that illustrates that when you do provide housing options, when you do provide food, and when you do address mental-health needs, that there is a correlation with a drop in street-disorder issues,” he explained. “We’ve been doing this for 10-plus years, saying there is a need for it [housing]. And there is a need for it in our district and we’re not going to be NIMBYs about it.”
The Straight has spent four weeks looking at 14 supportive-housing sites the City of Vancouver has developed in a partnership with the province. Vancouver Police Department (VPD) statistics combined with visits to five of these buildings, plus interviews with government officials, building operators, tenants, and neighbours, reveal a picture of social housing far less dramatic than many assume.
As previously reported, VPD figures for these buildings reveal a pattern. The number of calls to police goes up as tenants move in, usually peaking five to seven months after an opening. Then, after that initial rocky period, calls decline as the building ends its first year of operation and enters its second.
The DVBIA has statistics going back years that make for a similar argument in support of social housing.
In December 2008, the city opened a number of Homeless Emergency Action Team (HEAT) shelters in the area covered by the 90 square blocks that comprise the DVBIA. In October of that year, the DVBIA recorded 140 incidents of drug dealing or open drug use. After the shelters opened, that number fell to 30 per month, where it stayed with minor fluctuations as long as the shelters were open. When they eventually closed, in May 2009, this number climbed back up, to 196 incidents per month. When the HEAT shelters re-opened, in December 2009, it fell again, down to below 20. And so on.
The same pattern is present in another indicator, incidents of “aggressive panhandling” recorded by the DVBIA, though not as uniformly.
In August 2008, there were 291 reported incidents of people begging. That’s around where the monthly number stayed for a time after the HEAT shelters opened. But several months later, in March 2009, it began to “freefall”, in Gauthier’s words, to below 100 incidents per month. From there, it jumped back up to 150 after the shelters closed, and then fell again, to around 100 per month when they reopened the following winter.
“We’ve seen a drop in street disorder issues with the advent and introduction of more low-barrier shelters and with a continuum of housing options,” Gauthier concluded.
The DVBIA isn’t the only organization that’s collected data on supportive housing and learned a thing or two along the way.
The city describes the last eight years it has spent bringing these 14 buildings online as a learning process. It admits mistakes were made and emphasizes lessons have been applied to buildings that have opened more recently.
A tower operated by the Kettle Society at Burrard Street and Helmcken Street, for example, started moving tenants in in May 2014. In a common area on the seventh floor, Damian Murphy, a housing department manager for Kettle, told the Straight the most important lessons applied there are all about balance.
He acknowledged buildings that opened earlier, such as the Marguerite Ford Apartments at West 2nd Avenue and Cook Street, were criticized for moving too many high-needs tenants in too quickly. With the Kettle on Burrard, Murphy continued, special care was taken to create a better social mix.
The crux of this strategy is called the vulnerability assessment tool (VAT), which was developed in Seattle in the mid-2000s.
“It basically assesses people’s strengths and weaknesses and their level of vulnerability across a number of behavioral domains,” Murphy explained. Vancouver social workers who received VAT training in Seattle assess prospective tenants on social behaviors, mental-health issues, substance-use, general communication, plus organization and other life skills. That lets social workers assign each applicant a score. Then those numbers are used to see a given supportive-housing site filled with individuals who received a range of high and low scores on their VAT assessments. (Alternatively, supportive-housing sites with more support programs may receive more higher-needs tenants.)
“We were one of the first buildings to use that tool and it really helped a lot in our tenant selection,” Murphy said.
In a telephone interview, Vancouver city manager Penny Ballem spoke candidly about past shortcomings. For example, she said the implementation of the VAT was long overdue.
“It is remarkable to me that we didn’t have this before,” she said. “I think B.C. Housing finally realized that we need some tools to actually assess tenants as they come in, so you have a chance to understand the balance of needs that you have with a tenant group coming into a new facility.”
As the last of the 14 sites come online through 2015, Ballem conceded complaints from neighbours will likely still come in, but at lower levels than years past.
“There are still police calls but they have gone down a lot. And again, these are people with multiple challenges and not every call to the police means there is a criminal act going on,” she said. “But everything has gone down. I don’t think we’re hearing much in the way of complaints from residents at all.”
Looking to the future, Ballem said the city’s next priority related to low-income housing will be working with the province to clean up the Downtown Eastside’s older single-room occupancy hotels. She added there’s also more work to be done on street homelessness.
“The need is still there,” Ballem said.
This article is part of a series.
Part one: Do Vancouver’s social-housing projects attract crime? It’s a question with a complicated answer
Part two: Neighbours say police visits to supportive-housing sites no cause for alarm
Part three: Police calls reveal growing pains persist at Vancouver supportive-housing projects
Part four: How do you improve social housing? Choose the right mix of tenants