The province’s announcement of 450 new housing units in Vancouver is welcome news to a city struggling with an increase of homelessness caused by COVID-19 restrictions.
“We were making progress prior to COVID. We certainly saw a decrease in… the curve of homelessness,” Selina Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, said during a press conference today to announce 98 units of temporary modular housing, and 350 permanent supportive units.
Robinson said that while homelessness rose in the province by about 30 per cent between 2014 and 2017, the rate of increase had slowed to around one per cent between 2017 and 2020.
“COVID came and changed everything,” Robinson said. “People who had been double or triple bunking with their friends were no longer able to do that because of physical distancing measures.”
One of the new housing sites — a 98-unit modular housing building planned for 1580 Vernon Dr. on the city’s east side — is located just blocks away from what’s estimated to be the biggest tent city in Canada.
That housing is expected to be completed by spring, but the units aren’t specifically intended for residents of the Strathcona Park encampment.
The housing announcement left some neighbourhood residents frustrated and calling on the city once again to do something about the tent city.
“While good news, it doesn’t mean any immediate change in the Strathcona Park situation,” Katie Lewis, a member of the Strathcona Residents Association, wrote on Twitter. “These will be rolled out in the future. We need help now.”
Tent city supporters say it’s important that housing isn’t provided as part of a rushed process to clear a camp, as it was during the Oppenheimer Park decampment.
The tent city at Oppenheimer Park had been in place for two years before the province and city moved to shut it and two Victoria camps down in May, saying the tent cities presented too much of a risk for COVID-19 transmission.
Many of the residents moved to temporary housing in leased hotel rooms.
But closing the tent cities in Vancouver and Victoria didn’t solve the problem of increased homelessness. After the Oppenheimer Park tent city was shut down, a new camp formed first near Crab Park. It moved to Strathcona Park after police enforced a court injunction. There are now around 360 tents in Strathcona Park.
Fiona York, a community organizer who has been supporting the Strathcona Park site, said many more vulnerable people who don’t live in the tent city are likely in more dire need of permanent housing.
“I don’t think we would ever advocate and say just house people from the park, although clearly people are so in need who are staying at Strathcona Park,” York said.
“But it could be as well that people are less visible because they’re not in the park, but just as much in need,” York said. “There was a mom who came the other day who was reunited with her son and she had been staying just in the bushes, this small, petite woman by herself had been staying in places hidden away where no one would ever see her.”
In an email response to The Tyee, City of Vancouver staff wrote that people will have to apply to BC Housing to live in either the temporary housing planned for Vernon Drive or the permanent housing planned for five other city-owned sites.
“In addition to the homes at Vernon Drive, we are currently working with BC Housing to create more supportive homes in neighbourhoods across the city and a similar tenanting approach will be used for these,” staff wrote.
York wants to see more support for the Strathcona Park camp from the city. She noted colder weather is coming and will inevitably bring conflict between residents trying to keep warm and the fire department trying to mitigate fire risk.
She said a warming tent at Oppenheimer Park had previously been a point of conflict with the city.
The city should “come on board and help to provide something to keep people warm and safe if they are staying outside,” York said.
In previous years the city opened emergency winter shelters and some community centres were used as warming centres. “That doesn’t meet everybody’s needs,” York said.
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