Jean Swanson: My three-point plan to tackle homelessness that creates six big winners
Now that the photo-op is over—generating positive headlines in almost every media outlet that the city and province plan to build 450 units to house the homeless—it’s time to take a second look at just how good the plan is.
The fact is that it’s not nearly good enough.
Ninety-eight of the homes won’t be ready until spring at the earliest and the rest (350 homes) for two to three years. They won’t help any of more than 2,000 people in Vancouver experiencing homelessness through the cold and wet winter now just around the corner. They won’t help them to survive threat of two pandemics—COVID-19 and a poisoned illegal drug supply. They won’t help the people tenting at Strathcona Park today.
My impatience comes from knowing firsthand what poverty does to people. We know that people who are homeless have about half the life expectancy as people who live in homes. Some homeless people will probably die before any of the new units are ready.
Homeless people I know and work with will be lucky to live until they’re 50 while the average British Columbian lives to be 82. These early deaths are deeply disturbing to me because they are so preventable. Here’s my plan:
1. Lease empty hotels
The hotel industry, which has been almost closed by COVID, is asking the federal and provincial governments for a $680-million bailout. Let’s give them a fraction of that request, and secure hotels to house all of Vancouver’s homeless people who choose that option. We could have different hotels for people with different needs and wants. Some hotels would offer Indigenous culture and protocols; some could be set up for women and children; some for people who use drugs; some for people who want to get off drugs; some managed by nonprofits, some more self-managed, etc.
2. Start building permanent modular housing
If the province built 450 modular units per year, and if the federal government actually stepped up to the plate like the province has done and matched the 450 units, we could construct 900 units. If we did that for three years that would pretty well get rid of homelessness in the city. Prime Minister Trudeau said on CBC (Early Edition, September 2) that the feds have made “record investment in fighting homelessness.” Well, I haven’t seen any of this. Let him put our money where his mouth is.
Modular housing is simply housing that’s made in a factory. Because it’s not made on site, it’s cheaper to build. It can last for 50 years if it’s built with a proper foundation, so it doesn’t have to be temporary. And the building can be nice, with amenities such as community kitchens, and bathrooms and little kitchens in every unit.
As the modular housing is built, and as the COVID pandemic winds down, people can be shifted from the hotels into their own permanent apartments.
3. Implement full rent control in single-room-occupancy hotels
Thousands of Vancouver residents live in Downtown Eastside rental hotels that have become the last resort before homelessness. But virtually every time one of these hotels is sold, the new owner tries to get rid of existing tenants so they can raise rents. As a result, rents in the DTES SRO hotels are far above what most people on welfare and disability can afford. Each SRO unit whose rent goes up to $600 or more means one less housing unit available for low-income people and contributes to homelessness. If SRO rents are allowed to escalate, new modular and other social housing will just make up for what is lost instead of actually reducing homelessness.
The six wins
To date, we haven’t had a tri-government plan to end homelessness, but we drastically need one. With my plan, all three levels of government could cooperate, with the city putting in land, and the province and feds putting in money. The higher levels of government have the ability to impose ever more progressive taxes on the rich. If the rich paid their fair share, these programs could be easily paid for.
- Homeless people would win with a warm room with a private washroom for the winter and beyond.
- Hotel owners would win because they would be back in business, renting to government hotel rooms presently closed.
- Hotel workers who have been laid off as COVID-19 continues to decimate the tourism industry could be hired back—with proper safety protocols in place—to clean, do food prep, et cetera.
- People in neighbourhoods throughout the city would get their parks and streets back for regular use because people who are homeless and living in tents would have a suitable place to live.
- Public health would be improved because people who are homeless would have proper, private bathrooms and showers. They would no longer be forced to use congregate facilities in shelters where COVID could spread quickly. The hotels and modular housing could have special rooms for drug use so people don’t have to use alone, making their lives safer. Mental-health workers would be better able to find their clients and make progress once their clients have a stable home and an address.
- Taxpayers. All the studies show that when you add up all the costs of health services, policing, social services, and street cleaning, it’s cheaper to house people who are homeless than to abandon them on the street.
COVID has shown us that governments can do what’s necessary—if they want to. I challenge them to do it for homelessness.