In just a little over a week, a dense camp of several dozen homeless people will have stood in the zero block of West Hastings Street for three months.
In a telephone interview, one of the camp’s organizers, Karen Ward, noted that while similar so-called tent city demonstrations have sparked debates on affordable housing in years past, the media and the public’s collective reaction this year has felt nonexistent. Ward told the Straight she wonders if that’s because people have accepted such camps of homeless people as a regular fixture of life in Vancouver.
“The fact that we’ve become so used to basically having refugee camps inside Canada—that that’s been accepted as par for the course each summertime—it’s appalling,” she said.
Through the summer of 2014, as many as 200 tents were pitched in Oppenheimer Park as part of what homeless people described as a call for affordable housing. It was eventually dismantled by firefighters and police after the city won a court battle where it was argued the camp had come to pose a problem amid concerns about sanitation and security.
Ward said organizers of the West Hastings site have consciously applied lessons learned from that experience.
“We’ve emphasized the safety concerns that need to be met so that we don’t get caught up in that sort of thing,” she said. “Anything that puts other campers at risk is not tolerated.”
According to a May 2016 city report, there were 1,847 homeless people in Vancouver when the last count was conducted over a 24-hour period in March 2016. Of those, 1,308 were sleeping in shelters and 539 were on the street. The total of 1,847 homeless people is up from 1,746 in 2015, 1,803 in 2014, and 1,600 in 2013.
In a separate interview, Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer echoed Ward’s comments and said she agrees that the West Hastings demonstration has failed to attract the public’s attention.
“It’s an unfortunate sign of the times,” she told the Straight. “You’ve got camps in Abbotsford, Victoria, and Maple Ridge. All over the place. And I think that’s not surprising, given the growing numbers of homelessness.”
Reimer noted that over the course of the past two decades, property prices and rents across B.C. have increased significantly faster than wages.
“It’s not a Vancouver problem,” she said. “It’s a provincewide problem, which is depressing.”
On August 2, Mayor Gregor Robertson pledged to use the site on West Hastings—which is owned by the cityto develop a building of 100-percent social-housing units.
More recently, on September 19, the provincial government announced it was investing $500 million to add 2,900 “affordable rental units” to B.C.’s housing stock. The following day, city council passed a motion that moved Vancouver closer to imposing a tax on empty homes. There are nearly 10,000 vacant condos in Vancouver, a March 2016 study commissioned by the city revealed. If the proposed tax on empty homes brings one-fifth of those units onto the market, Vancouver’s vacancy rate would increase from 0.6 percent to a “healthy” 3.5 percent, according to the September 20 staff presentation.
Ward expressed skepticism about both levels of governments' efforts and questioned what any of those more recent promises would mean for low-income residents.
“Affordable?” she asked. “Affordable to whom?”