Tim Louis: Real solutions exist for homeless encampments

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      Nobody won at Tuesday night’s Vancouver Park Board meeting addressing the city’s latest and biggest homeless encampment in Strathcona Park.

      After two onerous nights of debate—in which nearly 100 speakers outlined their sympathy for the homeless park dwellers; for the board itself, having to deal with such a thorny issue; and for Strathcona residents facing things like stolen goods, a bike “chop shop”, and threats from the campers —it was a narrow 4-3 vote in favour of allowing temporary overnight sheltering in some of Vancouver’s parks and green spaces.

      But even the park board’s own general manager admits the bylaw change won’t address the Strathcona issue.

      More importantly, restrictions are so impractical I doubt anyone can take the whole thing seriously. People can’t camp near schools, playgrounds, sports fields, beaches, community centres, golf courses, the seawall, environmentally sensitive areas, gardens, horticultural displays, and picnic areas, plus they have to leave by 7 a.m.!

      I sat on the park board for years, and have to say I would have sided with COPE’s John Irwin and voted against the bylaw change.

      Besides not being practical on any level, asking the homeless to pack up all of their worldly belongings by 7 a.m. every morning is downright cruel. What are they supposed to do with their tents and all their belongings all day? Carry them around? Where can they keep them safe?

      This 7 a.m. restriction was obviously crafted by someone who has absolutely no empathy for what life must be like to be without a home. By living in a community, homeless people can provide each other with the kind of support missing when they’re living individually, scattered across the city, sleeping on sidewalks and under bridges.

      The homeless issue is complex, but believe it or not, it wasn’t always a problem in Vancouver.

      As recently as the 1970s, even with severe poverty around, there were relatively few people, if any, without a roof over their heads.

      In those days, government programs and agencies were very active supporting social housing, including co-ops. Agencies like Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation acted in different ways, depending on their mandate.

      They provided low-cost loans to developers for building housing, or to first-time house buyers who couldn’t meet mortgage requirements; or they would actually develop the housing themselves.

      These agencies for sheltering everyone were very active, and they usually achieved their goals—meaning, they actually had the budgets and showed the leadership needed.

      Some of these programs are still active today, but they’re so watered down they’re virtually useless.

      For instance, CMHC offers low-cost loans to developers building rentals across Canada.

      But how on earth can it ever achieve its goal of every person in Canada, by 2030, having a home “that they can afford and that meets their needs” when projects with only five rental units qualify for low-cost federal loans?

      According to the World Bank, the per capita GDP in Cuba for 2018 was US$8,821.82 vs. US$46,232.99 for Canada the same year. In Cuba—with its tiny, tiny economy—no child sleeps on the street. Surely with our wealth we can do the same.

      This isn’t an idea from Mars!

      The Strathcona encampment—now home to 200+ tents, and growing every day with fallout from the pandemic—is simply the latest chapter in this sad saga.

      Pre-pandemic, hundreds of homeless people camped in Oppenheimer Park last year. When the city eventually got an injunction to remove them, many were put into housing by the province and city. But many weren’t.

      Then the tent city moved next to CRAB Park. But the Port of Vancouver got them evicted from there, so they moved to their current location—a very important park for the 13,000+ residents of Strathcona, one of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods.

      I’m pleased to note that a number of Strathcona neighbourhood residents have expressed support for the tent city, especially the demands of the campers for a permanent site with toilets, clean water and other necessities, and an end to the “cycle of displacement.”

      The only fair, long-term solution is for the City of Vancouver, along with the provincial and federal governments, to develop a robust, aggressive plan immediately to build social housing in the volume needed. Just like back in the ’70s.

      In the meantime, the campers’ demand to end the cycle of displacement is totally doable.

      Just look at Portland’s Right to Dream Too, a collective of temporary shelters located on a city-owned parking lot in Portland. Started as a protest against homelessness, this tent city was also forced to move from one site to another.

      While no one suggests R2DTOO’s current site is permanent, the residents are now safe from displacement and have access to toilets, security, and clean water until permanent shelters are built. A much better use than a parking lot for cars, especially with people driving less.

      The City of Vancouver currently owns more than 700 properties, many of them parking lots. Surely one of these sites is suitable until permanent housing can be built with funding and support from other levels of government.

      At one time Vancouver had different priorities. We made different choices—like community over commodity—and achieved our goals.

      We can do it again in a real, practical way… if we want to.

      For an in-depth look at affordable housing issues and solutions in Metro Vancouver, see the report by Marc Lee at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Getting Serious About Affordable Housing.

      Daily atmospheric CO2 [Courtesy of CO2.Earth]

      Latest daily total (Jul. 15, 2020): 415.19 ppm

      One year ago (Jul. 15, 2019): 412.96 ppm

      Tim Louis is a Vancouver lawyer and former city councillor and park commissioner. This article first appeared on his blog, which lists the daily carbon dioxide count in parts per million in the atmosphere at the end of every post. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.