No matter which party takes power after next month’s B.C. election, it will have to deal with a record-breaking homelessness crisis. It has rightly been called an “emergency.”
For the last six months, I’ve been looking for solutions — in the backyards of places that have seen some success housing their unsheltered, talking to experts, but most importantly, to people who are experiencing homelessness themselves and often know exactly what needs to be done.
What follows is some of what I’ve learned. More details on most of them can be found in the series of reports I’ve filed to The Tyee and Megaphone, the magazine where I’m managing editor, over the last half year. But as suggestions, these are mine, not those of either publication.
Most of these ideas would require the province to spend more, but in the long run they would save B.C. taxpayers more money than we spend now on a frayed patchwork of social programs and revolving-door criminal justice. Alberta’s Medicine Hat ended its persistent homelessness — and went from spending $134,000 a year on emergency services for each person without a home, to $34,000 for their supportive housing.
So, here are some things we could do:
Bylaws that criminalize people who pitch a tent for shelter, when a lack of housing and emergency beds leaves no other option, only further marginalize them. Cities that have authorized tent encampments, and provide services to these tent cities, have a better chance of engaging people in the formal social-support system, and eventually re-connecting them to a home.
“My argument is [that] while new units are being built, we are going to see people sheltering outdoors. It’s better for them, and better for the wider community, if it happens in regulated and predictable and supportive spaces instead of ad hoc tent cities — as we’re seeing.”
— Victoria Councillor Ben Isitt.
People averse to social housing or emergency shelters in their neighbourhood can mean the difference between someone sleeping inside in safety or on the street. Neighbours often fear that social and shelter facilities will lower their property values and increase local crime. In fact, research over 20 years has repeatedly busted those fears as false.
“I let people know that this can be anybody. And to make every effort not to lump people together, or make assumptions, when we don’t know that particular person until we’ve met. And I ask that people don’t assume that because someone is homeless that it means they don’t want services or housing. If they seem reluctant, there’s probably some very good reasons for that. I try to just normalize it. This is about people trying to survive.”
— Wanda Mulholland, Burnaby resident and coordinator with the Society to End Homelessness in Burnaby.
Cities in Alberta such as Medicine Hat, Edmonton, and Calgary, have either dramatically decreased or eliminated chronic street homelessness by making secure shelter an initial priority — the Housing First model — and then “wrapping” people in other services. British Columbia supports Housing First in principle, but hasn’t coordinated other services well enough.
“We’re trying to provide immediate access to housing, and then it’s taking people six months to actually obtain a service [in B.C.]. That’s a long time to ask someone to figure out how to maintain housing if they don’t have the wrap-around support.”
— Rebecca Bell, manager with the Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy.
“These are critical [services] that have to be working together, and willing to work together, in order to make a difference here.”
— Kevin McNichol, the Calgary Homeless Foundation’s vice-president of strategy.
For people experiencing homelessness or relying on welfare, single-room occupancy hotels are a valued option on a very short list of shelter choices. While investment is certainly needed in other parts of the housing spectrum, more effective rent control and higher welfare and disability benefits would help.
“We’ve been crunching numbers, and half [of Vancouver’s affordable SROs] are gone — and by gone I mean they’re over $500 a month in rent. They’re no longer low-income. [Another] 550 rooms are being rapidly gentrified, renovicted by any means possible.”
— Tom de Grey, who escaped a period of homelessness and now lives in a well maintained SRO, and is a member of the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative.
B.C.’s Employment and Assistance Act — better known as the law that provides welfare — is meant to be a safety net for people facing the loss of their housing. But with rates frozen for a decade while rents soared in the Lower Mainland, welfare doesn’t keep a roof over people’s heads. More realistic rates would help. But even without them, other places are acting to better identify adults and teens who are at risk of homelessness, and prevent it from happening by moving quickly to connect them with necessary services.
“If you had a flood in your basement, would you spend the next 10 years mopping up the water? No, you would go upstairs and turn off the tap.”
— Elisa Traficante, manager of community initiatives for Raising the Roof, a Toronto-based charity with an aim to end homelessness.
Several U.S. cities and the State of Hawaii declared formal states of emergency over their homelessness crisis, as a lever to justify extra funding and cut red tape in an effort to close gaps in service. Montreal is among the cities that also named an accountable leader to implement strategic plans to end homelessness.
“We declared a state of emergency for housing and homelessness in Portland because our housing prices are rising faster than any other U.S. city and we have a big population of homeless people in crisis. The combination led us to say, ‘This is an emergency, let’s be real about that, put in some new money, try new things, and move quickly against this set of problems.’”
— former Portland mayor Charlie Hales, while he was in office.