Jean Swanson: Vancouver needs three-step plan to help house homeless people now

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      “Where should we go?” If the people living in tents on Hastings Street asked you where they should go, what would you tell them?  Go to a park, maybe? Spread out so you don’t create an obstacle in one place ? Go to Vancouver City Hall or B.C.’s welfare offices, they’re the ones in charge?

      But neither Vancouver’s nor the province’s homeless outreach folks have much real housing to offer. SROs are full, wait lists for social housing and co-ops are years long, and affordable rental buildings are being bought up by speculators who evict tenants as fast as they can. Though 40 units have evidently been found for people in the Hastings encampments, more than 60 others still need them because of the loss of low-income units in a recent fire. 

      It's time that Vancouver creates a legal and safe place for people who are homeless to live until we build the permanent, well-built and affordable housing that we need to eventually end homelessness. A legal and safe place would have washrooms, electricity, regular garbage pick up, fire stewards, and maybe a chance for residents to pick up some extra cash working to keep the place liveable. A place where you wouldn’t be told you have to move everyday. I suspect most folks in tents on Hastings Street would say that’s a reasonable short-term answer to their question. 

      My political party, COPE, has a 50-year history of working in the Downtown Eastside to eliminate poverty and promote policies that benefit the people who live in the city, not the developers and speculators. That’s why COPE now offers a three-step plan to deal with the ongoing homelessness crisis. It starts with local initiatives under local jurisdiction that could be put in place as soon as a new council is sworn in. It’s a plan that doesn’t lose sight of the fact that only senior levels of government have the taxing power to end homelessness and that the real solution is permanent housing. 

      1. Find places where people can set up their tents and live their lives: closed side streets, a leased parking lot, vacant lots owned or leased by the city. Water, electricity, washrooms or at least porta potties and harm reduction tools would be installed by the city. It could be run mostly by peers, the folks who live there, with a small budget for doing what’s essential.
      1. Before winter rains set in, provide “tiny houses” with electricity for heat and light and doors that lock at a cost of about $10,000 each. We could build common washrooms and cooking facilities on the sites. All of this would be voluntary and involve using peers, not police. The city’s Empty Homes Tax could fund this step until senior governments step up to fund their mandated responsibilities.  
      1. We can't allow the tent and tiny home camps to be considered a permanent solution, but we do have to recognize the reality that housing takes years to build and people shouldn't have to live in tents without proper facilities.  If the  province and feds commit to major funding ASAP, the city could speed up approvals so new buildings are constructed within two or three years, or even sooner for modular housing

      I can remember going to the opening of the first Vancouver Food Bank almost 40 years ago. All the speakers promised that it was a temporary measure, only until poverty was reduced and people were rich enough to feed themselves. We still have food banks. In pushing for humane treatment of people who are homeless before we have enough housing, COPE is not saying people should be relegated to tents and tiny houses—only that we should do the humane and healthy things that we can do in the short term while we build the housing we need.

      As we go to the polls in October, we need to be electing city councillors who have the right kind of answer when asked about the people in tents on Hastings and the more than 2,000 others who are homeless in our city: “Where should we go?” All council candidates should commit, if elected, to implementing COPE’s three-step plan to reduce homelessness.