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Activists offer plan to quickly house Downtown Eastside's homeless

The most visible tip of British Columbia’s vast homeless problem could be solved almost overnight if governments were to pressure private owners to reopen more than 486 vacant rooms and apartments in Vancouver’s rough-and-tumble Downtown Eastside.

“Last week, we went out and surveyed all of the hotel rooms in the Downtown Eastside, and we found a staggering 486 empty rooms and apartment units in this neighbourhood,” said activist Wendy Pedersen of the Carnegie Community Action Project.

Only 383 homeless people were found living on neighbourhood streets last March, when the most recent Metro Vancouver Homeless Count was conducted; another 276 homeless were found living in the Downtown Eastside shelters.

“So our temporary solution to end street homelessness in the Downtown Eastside is to open the 486 rooms and fill them with some of the more than 650 people who are homeless in this neighbourhood,” Pedersen told a small crowd in from of the shuttered Dominion Hotel on Abbott Street.

The CCAP protest highlighted an issue that Vancouver housing experts have been aware of for some time: the city’s rapidly gentrifying Downtown Eastside hosts more than enough cheap hotel rooms house its population, but literally hundreds of those room – and some experts believe that when illegal dwelling units are included, the total is closer to 1,000 beds – have been shuttered by real estate speculators, who typically evict low-income tenants in order to facilitate resale of their buildings for redevelopment.

Pedersen, who wore painter’s overalls and brandished a paint roller, issued a direct challenge to the city’s newly settled field of mayoral and council candidates.

"We don’t think it’s that hard to open up these buildings. How hard would it be to roll up our sleeves, get some paint, spray a can of Raid, move in some furniture...?" Pedersen asked.

"And how hard would it be for our current city councillors, and the people who want to be mayor and on council come November, to roll up their sleeves and figure out how to strike some deals with the owners of these buildings?" she asked. "They could be leased tomorrow, and opened up within days."

Former city councilor Ellen Woodsworth was the only civic candidate in attendance at the Tuesday afternoon protest.

“This is a very practical solution to address Vancouver’s homeless problem,” Woodsworth said. “I’m prepared to go back to COPE and figure out how we can get these rooms open."

Vision Vancouver mayoral candidate Gregor Robertson said he'd support such a plan, provided that the rooms were well-managed and safe.

"It's a creative idea, and I definitely think we should be open to looking at all options," Robertson told The Tyee. "If we can work with BC Housing to get the kinds of supports in place that many people would need to move in, and if we're providing renovated, up-to-code shelter rooms, then that's something I would support."

Robertson added, "This highlights both the lack of a long-term strategy from the Province to deal with homelessness, as well as the need to be using the SRA standards of maintenance bylaw to help protect our low-income housing stock. The city has the power to go in to buildings that are not kept up to code, fix them to the proper standards, and charge the owners for the repairs. It's a progressive tool that is completely within the city's power, but the NPA have been completely reluctant to use it. We need to stop treating negligent landlords with kid gloves."

Non-Partisan Association mayoral candidate Peter Lander did not return repeated requests for comment on the CCAP proposal. [But The Hook caught up with Ladner on Oct. 1.]

CCAP’s Pedersen noted that two different studies, paid for by the province, each concluded that taxpayers spend less to house the homeless than to pay police, fire and ambulance crews to continually administer to their needs. She also stressed that while reopening old hotel rooms is a good short-term solution, it does not provide the safe, supportive, long-term housing that the Downtown Eastside’s disproportionately addicted and mentally ill population requires.

Among the shuttered residential hotels and small-apartment buildings identified by CCAP’s survey are: American Hotel, Argyle Hotel, Backpacker Hotel, Burns Block, Canadian North Star, Colonial Hotel, Dominion Hotel, Evergreen Rooms, Hampton Rooms, Jay Rooms, No. 5 Orange, Pacific Hotel, Palace Hotel and Piccadilly Hotel.

Monte Paulsen is editor of The Hook.

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