Jean Swanson: City of Vancouver plays whack-a-mole with homeless people

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      "It's just like playing whack-a-mole. That's what a housing outreach worker said to me about the city's attempt to tear down tent cities when there isn't enough decent housing for all who need it.

      The worker was at Oppenheimer Park during one of the city's attempts to take down the 15 or so tents that pop up there because people have no suitable place to live that they can afford. Two city trucks were driving on the field. Lots of big blue city garbage bins were there. Outreach workers were trying to talk tenters into going to a shelter. But shelters aren't homes. Many are just a mat on the floor for the night time. Then you're kicked out in the morning and have to roam until you line up again for the shelter mat at night.

      Sometimes these shelter mats have bugs, and things get stolen. One man I talked to that day was coughing. He said he had pneumonia but couldn't live in a shelter because he would be too close to other people. That made him anxious.

      The outreach worker had arranged a "viewing" at an SRO hotel that we used to call the "Vermin". There was no guarantee that the landlord would agree to accept this man as a tenant if he went to the viewing. And besides, he still needed to get on welfare, which would take at least a day or two.

      Six cops were there, standing around joking with each other. "Nice day," one of them said to me.

      "Unless you're homeless," I responded.

      Pretty soon the workers got around to the tent of the guy who had pneumonia. He had fixed it up nicely: a couple of tarps over top to keep it dry: a soft mattress and some blankets inside, some clothes, and a water bottle. 

      The workers started tearing it down. A blue bin was wheeled over. One worker took a black leather jacket out of the tent and started to drop it in the bin before hesitating and looking back and the man whose tent it was. Then he dropped the jacket in the bin, and all the man's other stuff.

      The man with pneumonia just walked away towards Hastings Street wearing a T-shirt and a lightweight cotton shirt over that.  

      This is the scene that plays out countless times every morning in the Downtown Eastside and other places where homeless people live. Only sometimes it's raining. People are told to take their stuff and move. But what do you do with a sopping wet tent and blankets when you have no money to dry them and no place to hang them? Are you supposed to carry around a wet tent and blankets all day until you set up again at night just to be told in the morning that you have to leave again?

      I suspect that city workers, cops, park rangers, garbage people, and outreach workers are told to spend hundreds of hours a week creating these little scenes of desperation, whacking the homeless moles in one place while they pop up in another—because human beings have to BE someplace and there is no housing they can afford. 

      Of the 1,847 homeless people counted in Vancouver last year, there were no shelter spaces for more than 500. When Pivot Legal Society called the shelters before the latest tent city eviction, they were all full. Union Gospel Mission says it is having to turn people away from its shelters and the city's homeless report card says shelter turnaways are increasing. A B.C. Housing official told me that it could give homeless people a list of shelters and put them on a list for social housing that could take three years.

      There are really only two facts that governments need to know about homelessness: homeless people have about half the life expectancy as other B.C. residents and it costs more to keep homeless people on the street than to put them in decent housing.

      No level of government is treating this situation as the crisis it is. We desperately need the city, province and/or feds to immediately buy some hotels or spaces where people who are homeless can go indoors with dignity, NOW. And in the longer run, of course, we need thousands of units of social housing that low-income people can afford, and welfare rates that are high enough to pay for rent and other necessities. In the meantime, the city could divert the money it's using to whack homeless moles to provide services and facilities at a properly set up tent city.  

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      Jean Swanson is a volunteer with the Carnegie Community Action Project.

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