With increased homelessness in Vancouver during the pandemic, Mayor Kennedy Stewart wants the city to explore some temporary emergency housing solutions: finding hotels for people to live in, designating land for people to camp on and converting city-owned buildings into homes.
More homeless people have been sleeping rough and tenting on streets and parks. The threat of COVID-19 has led to the increase in numbers, with shelters operating at limited capacity and guests banned from many residential hotels in the Downtown Eastside.
Coun. Jean Swanson chimed in with another solution that’s been tried just south of the border: tiny homes.
In West Seattle in 2016, 25 people living in a tent city were able to establish a tiny home village from donated materials and public land. Called Camp Second Chance, it now has over 50 residents. There are onsite case workers who help residents with employment, applying for identification and other services.
The Tyee recently has run a number of stories about how tiny homes have brought safety and stability to lives of homeless people in other North American cities including Seattle, and the potential of setting up such an experiment in Vancouver.
“It’s not a substitute for permanent, long-term housing, but we do have a lot of land that’s vacant for short periods of time in the city,” said Bryn Davidson, who owns Lanefab Design/Build, which specializes in laneway housing. Swanson has suggested that city staff meet with Davidson.
Tiny houses have been popularized by do-it-yourself adventurers who have built them on wheels or on rural properties, but Davidson came up with an idea to adapt them for Vancouver, an urban setting with high land prices.
Rather than standalone tiny houses, he’s thinking tiny townhouses. And because the placement of the units can be easily reconfigured, they could be rearranged to fit on any size lot. Also, “they’re warmer,” he adds.
It doesn’t have the shared hallways of an indoor dorm, so it’s safer for COVID. As for the not-in-my-backyard homeowners that might protest, tiny townhouses look more residential than a tent city, “something that might be more acceptable to a neighbourhood, with a potential for community,” said Davidson.
Swanson also suggested that the city find a designated place for low-income people living in RVs to park. In recent years, a number of van dwellers have parked along streets in industrial areas, such as Vernon Drive in East Vancouver. (The city does not allow this, but it is also not issuing tickets during the pandemic.)
Of all the options, Swanson believes converting hotels into homes would have the strongest impact.
“They’re just sitting there,” she said in council. “We’d just have to find some to lease. We wouldn’t have to find sites and service them. There are thousands of empty rooms that have their own washroom, so they’re not congregate settings like shelters, and are good for protection against COVID.”
If the city can partner with different housing managers with different management styles — people who use drugs, live with partners or pets, are interested in a setting with peers — she believes homeless people will choose them over the street.
“If we offer people better options, they’ll take them,” said Swanson, who’s been fighting for low-income people in the Downtown Eastside for four decades. “That’s been all of my experience.”
With the exception of Coun. Melissa De Genova, councillors were in favour of staff researching the solutions.
‘Take it or leave it?’
Coun. Rebecca Bligh and Coun. Michael Wiebe also asked staff to consider how the emergency housing solutions might lead to the “decampment” of parks and other public spaces such as sidewalks and alleys.
This has been an emotional topic for residents in and around the downtown core — in particular residents near the Strathcona Park tent city — who have voiced concern about having to share their neighbourhood with homeless newcomers. Videos of people using drugs in public shared on social media have added to the anger.
Fiona York, co-ordinator for the Carnegie Community Action Project, worries that these temporary emergency housing measures are intended to drive homeless people out of public spaces like parks who are making nearby residents in homes nervous.
She questions which homeless people might be considered for housing in the “intake and referral process” mentioned in the motion.
“Is it going to be people with the most need? Or people are visible and considered an issue to the housed population?” asked York, who called The Tyee from the Strathcona Park tent city. “It sounds government-run, one-size fits all, take it or leave it.”
York fears that city action to move away from unsanctioned tent cities to selective sanctioned options might further “delegitimize” homeless people who aren’t comfortable leaving the place where they are living for temporary shelter.
Green and NPA councillors (along with Bligh, formerly with the NPA) voted for this amendment on decamping.
The mayor, who did not, said he didn’t like how it was not specified whether decamping could mean an injunction.
Coun. Christine Boyle, who was also against it, told The Tyee that “talking about decampment before there are other options for unhoused people is the wrong order. My first and most urgent priority is creating better options for people, so that they have somewhere else to move.”
York took issue with another idea that Bligh and Wiebe suggested city staff explore: the possibility of a bubble zone of 300 metres to separate designated encampments from businesses and housed residents, in consultation with the police and engineering departments. The bubble is intended to “proactively reduce any ancillary camping, litter, disorder, criminal activity or other impacts to improve integration with adjacent businesses and residents.”
Coun. Swanson also didn’t like the assumption that distance from people who are poor and are dealing with health challenges would make an area safer.
City staff will be researching the suggestions and reporting back on Oct. 3.