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A Homeless Report Card for British Columbia

The Tyee asked experts to assess progress on the issue, and assign some grades.

By Monte Paulsen 12 Oct 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Monte Paulsen is investigative editor of The Tyee. He's editing The Hook this week, where there will be ongoing coverage of Homeless Action Week.

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Last month in Crab Park in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Photo by The Blackbird.

[Editor's note: Marking Homeless Action week in B.C., this is the first of several in-depth reports on homelessness this week on The Tyee, as well as many postings about the issue on our political new blog, The Hook.]

Homelessness has grown worse across British Columbia during the past three years, and the federal government has failed to help.

Those are among the conclusions of a Tyee panel of six experts who graded three levels of government on their efforts to end homelessness. The informal panel issued C grades to the City of Vancouver and the Province of British Columbia, while slapping the Government of Canada with an F.

Panelists were selected for two criteria: All have first-hand experience working with the homeless in Vancouver, and none are employed by government. They are: Sean Condon, editor of Megaphone Magazine; Nancy Hall, former mental health advocate; Dave Jones, security consultant to the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association; Jean Swanson, co-ordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project; Laura Track, housing lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society; and Harsha Walia, project coordinator at the Downtown Eastside Women Centre.

No one should suppose that this grading process was either scientific or unbiased -- most of those on the panel are professional critics. But their comments do provide a perspective on where British Columbia has made progress against its sprawling homelessness problem, and where there is still more to do.

Homelessness has grown worse

Five of the six Tyee panelists said homeless has grown worse in B.C. during the past three years.

"It's impossible to conclude that the problem has gotten anything but worse," Pivot lawyer Laura Track said.

"The 2008 Metro Vancouver homeless count found a 37 per cent increase in street homelessness between 2005 and 2008, with homelessness among women rising particularly quickly," Track added. "Municipalities like Pitt Meadows, Coquitlam and Burnaby saw their homeless populations grow by more than 100 per cent. The crisis is also growing in northern B.C. and throughout the province, in communities that lack the resources to do formal homeless counts."

Megaphone editor Sean Condon -- who not only reports on homelessness, but also employs homeless vendors to distribute his bimonthly magazine -- supported that view with his own anecdotal evidence.

"Having done countless interviews with shelter workers, housing activists and the homeless themselves, there is a near unanimous consensus that the number of homeless people has increased over the past three years," Condon said. "I would add that from my own observations, having worked in the Downtown Eastside, there does seem to be an increase in the number of homeless people over the past three years."

Carnegie activist Jean Swanson was the only panelist to conclude that the situation has grown "marginally better" in the past three years. Unlike her fellow panelists, who considered the province as a whole, Swanson focused her assessment on the neighbourhood in which she has long lived and worked.

"Opening up the provincial hotels and the three HEAT shelters in the Downtown Eastside has taken the hardest edge off homelessness in this neighbourhood," Swanson said. "I see people sleeping outside now, but it is probably less than half of what I saw last year before the HEAT shelters."

Harper gets an F

In their only near-unanimous opinion, five out of six of The Tyee's panelists judged the Government of Canada to have failed to assist British Columbia's efforts to end homelessness.

"Mr. Harper is ducking this issue," was the view expressed by several judges.

They noted that homelessness is declining in Britain and the United States, where federal governments fund Housing First programs. At the same time, homelessness continues to rise across Canada, where the federal government refuses to fund even those programs that have proven effective in cutting local tax burdens.

"The federal government is complicit in creating what the United Nations describes as a 'national emergency' of homelessness," Track said.

"The federal government's refusal to implement a national housing strategy to ensure everyone has access to quality affordable housing is a national shame," the Pivot lawyer continued. "We are the only G8 country without such a strategy."

Swanson also noted that Canada is the only G8 nation without a housing strategy, and proposed a target:

"We desperately need a national housing program that builds 20,000 to 30,000 units of housing per year that is affordable for low income people," the Carnegie activist said.

Jones, a former inspector for the Vancouver Police Department, was frequently the most generous grader on The Tyee panel. He noted that Ottawa has recently funded a three-year mental health experiment.

"After 20 years of not supporting low-cost housing through the discontinued CMHC program, in the last year the Mental Health Commission of Canada has developed a plan to run trial programs in five cities, Vancouver being one," Jones said. "The programming and health dollars attached to the housing dollars are badly needed."

Province averages a C

Tyee panelists diverged wildly in their assessments of British Columbia's efforts to reduce homelessness. Every letter grade was issued. On average, those grades work out to a 'C' for the government of British Columbia.

During the three-year period that The Tyee asked its expert panel to consider, Premier Gordon Campbell's government has bought or leased 45 properties in an effort to protect affordable housing. (That list includes 24 residential hotels in Vancouver.) BC Housing will open about 450 units of new supportive housing in Vancouver this year, and has plans to build another 1,900 units across eight cities during the coming decade.

So why the low grades? Jones offered this insight.

"Reversing long neglect is slow, and some may not see the effort coming to fruition as fast as they would like. The situation will not show material results for another two to three years while construction continues and the economy recovers," Jones said.

"The purchase of the hotels... is a good start," he added. "The opening of secure mental health facilities is a reversal of the ruinous casting out of the mentally ill to forage for themselves. This marks a clear change."

Condon, who lives and works in the Downtown Eastside, also sought to explain the mixed reviews.

"The provincial government's recent investment in SRO hotels has been very positive," Condon said. "But it does not actually decrease homelessness. These hotels were already mostly full when the province bought them. While it will give these residents some security and helps prevent homelessness, it is still a band-aid on a rather large and systemic problem that the provincial government was largely responsible for and has thus far refused to fully address."

Track suggested that the province has not done enough to prevent people from sliding into homelessness.

"Minimum wages and social assistance rates have stagnated, keeping tens of thousands of British Columbians in poverty, while rents and property values have sky-rocketed, making the task of finding affordable housing incredibly difficult for many people," Track said.

"The province has refused to amend residential tenancy legislation to provide for meaningful rent control and ensure people cannot be evicted from their homes for minor renovations. Now they want to introduce legislation to force homeless people into shelters against their will, ignoring the constitutional and practical realities of the homelessness crisis they helped create," the lawyer added.

Vancouver gets a C

The panel was more consistent in its assessment of the City of Vancouver, which also received a C.

Mayor Gregor Robertson campaigned on a promise to end street homelessness by 2015, and launched the Homeless Emergency Action Team (HEAT) during his first week in office. HEAT opened several emergency shelters last winter, but closed two of them over the summer.

Among the most objective views of the effectiveness of Robertson's efforts to reduce street homelessness is offered by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association's uniformed Downtown Ambassadors, who since late 2006 have counted homeless sleepers as part of their daily rounds.

Jones, now a security consultant, tracks that data. It shows a sharp rise in homeless sleeping during 2008, then a precipitous drop after the HEAT shelters were opened last winter, followed by a rise in late summer of 2009.

"Sometimes the data is pretty clear," Jones said. "In the case of the HEAT shelters, we saw rough sleeping drop off immediately. We also saw open drug use and drug trafficking drop off immediately."

However, Jones noted that those numbers began rising again shortly after two shelters closed last summer: "I would expect, in the absence of anything else coming on line, that we will see those numbers continue to rise."

Track said, "The new Vision council has done better," but added, "I was really disappointed by their decision to allow two shelters to close this summer due to community opposition. Those shelters were serving a particularly marginalized community of homeless youth, many of whom had not slept indoors for years and who had finally found a place that felt like home in the shelters."

Swanson sought to put the city's sheltering efforts in perspective.

"People who are in shelters are still homeless," the veteran Downtown Eastside activist said. "When I say things are a bit better, it's only because more homeless people are inside for part of the day, not because more have real, adequate housing."

Swanson suggested: "We'd like to see the city purchase more land to be used as social housing and take leadership in creating a more powerful lobby to get a federal-provincial national housing program."

Business and media also fare poorly

Some of The Tyee panelists also assessed the contributions that business and media have made toward ending homelessness during the past three years. Each were given D grades.

Jones made the case that business is part of the solution.

"Business leaders sit on the boards of almost every charity and not-for-profit organization," he said. "They give their time, their treasure and their talent. And most do so quietly."

Women's centre activist Walia expressed an opposing view, and singled out the ambassadors program for criticism.

"Business associations such as the Downtown Business Improvement Association are complicit in harassing poor people through their hiring of private security guards," Walia said. "Also, gentrification projects like Woodward's are increasing real estate speculation in poor neighbourhoods like the Downtown Eastside."

The panelists agreed that homelessness is getting more ink in the local papers, but several said mainstream media coverage tended toward the sensational.

"The Province [newspaper] did a series on the Downtown Eastside," Swanson explained. "But the overall impact -- especially from the sensationalist photos -- was to stereotype the area and therefore justify lack of housing for people in need. Coverage by the Globe and Mail was likewise very individual and didn't focus on the need for all levels of government to contribute to housing."

Condon, the magazine editor, added, "The provincial government is taking rather minor -- but highly visible -- action on the issue, and the mainstream media is all too ready to leave them off the hook. There is, also, little to no attention or awareness about the federal government's inaction on this issue."

'Do we want it?'

In closing comments, Jones gently criticized The Tyee for failing to ask for grades on the performance of Vancouver's large and vocal non-profit community.

"You have not asked what kind of a job the network of social agencies do. As with most media, these groups get a free ride without much in the way of critical analysis. Some, heavily reliant on government funding, trash the government at every opportunity," Jones said.

"Social service agencies are vital," he added, "but they must be accountable for the public dollars they spend."

Condon voiced concerns about a disconnect.

"I feel that over the past three years we have seen a marked increase in attention and awareness about homelessness," he said. "The general public is becoming more concerned about the increase in the number of people on their streets and demanding that their governments take action. However, there is still a huge disconnect between what people want to happen and what is actually happening."

Track concluded on a hopeful note.

"I believe we can end homelessness. It is not some intractable problem that will always be with us," Track said. "By raising incomes, ensuring a stock of good quality affordable housing and providing supportive services to people who need them, homelessness can be over. The question is: do we want it?"  [Tyee]

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