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750 People Need Homes Right Now. What Are Vancouver’s Options?

City staff report weighs pros and cons of solutions from tiny homes to managed camps.

Jen St. Denis 6 Oct

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

A new report to Vancouver city council recommends a range of options to deal with a growing homelessness crisis, including locating tent camps at city hall.

At least 750 people are living outside in Vancouver right now, city staff estimate in a report that looks at five options for providing immediate shelter.

According to city staff, around 200 of those people are living in tents in Strathcona Park, where a large tent city has been located since July.

Homelessness was already at a high point when the 2020 Vancouver homeless count was completed on March 4, staff say in the report. Participants counted 547 unsheltered people, the highest number since 2005.

But the number increased after restrictions were introduced in mid-March to limit the spread of COVID-19.

In April, the province announced it would use a public safety order to clear the Oppenheimer Park tent city, an encampment that had lasted around two years. People were offered housing at hastily leased or purchased hotels and motels, and 261 people accepted, according to the province.

But the tent city didn’t disappear, moving to Strathcona Park. While organizers say the tent city offers more safety than being homeless alone, there have also been multiple violent incidents in the camp. Neighbours have complained about an increase in aggressive behaviour, thefts and trespassing on private property.

On Sept. 14, Vancouver city council asked city staff to report back on five options to immediately house people:

Staff will present their report to council Thursday, but here’s an advance look at the options and what city staff say are the pros and cons.

To complicate matters, staff are reminding council that the city can’t expect any help from the B.C. government or BC Housing until the election period is over.

Option 1: Lease or buy hotels, motels or SROs

City staff say they’ve reviewed available buildings and estimate it could cost between $125 million and $240 million to buy all the units that are needed, and another $10.9 million in annual operating costs.

If the city couldn’t get other levels of government to chip in, staff warn this could blow a hole in city finances. But, staff say, a $1-billion federal fund for rapid housing projects could help.

Option 2: Create one or more managed camps

City staff say there are examples of managed camps in cities like Seattle, and they’re normally seen as “a temporary stop-gap approach.”

Organizers of the Strathcona Park tent city told city staff they thought there should be around six separate camps rather than one large one, with each camp catering to people with different wants and needs.

For instance, one camp could be for people who don’t need many supports, one could be for people who want to stay sober, while another could be for people with mental illness or who use drugs.

When city staff talked to unhoused people about this option, 75 per cent said they would be concerned about their safety, and 22 per cent of those who said they would consider staying in a managed camp said they’d only stay there if supports like security, food and showers were provided.

The cost of running a supported encampment for 40 people would be between $2.1 million and $2.4 million a year, depending if the camp was staffed during the daytime only or 24-7.

Staff identified some possible locations, including two at Vancouver city hall — the lawn and Helena Gutteridge Plaza.

Option 3: Temporarily convert city-owned buildings into shelters

This is something the city already does every fall and winter. By the end of October, 10 shelters will open in city-owned buildings.

Finding more sites proved difficult, but staff identified three options: 875 Terminal Ave., an industrial building; the 2400 Motel on Kingsway Avenue; and the Kingsway Continental pub.

Option 4: Establish tiny home villages

Proponents of tiny homes say small, simple shelters would be warmer and more secure than tents and should be considered as an option that could be located both on city land and land that is awaiting development. The Tyee recently explored tiny homes as one option to address homelessness.

But staff raised concerns that some of the designs proposed haven’t included private bathrooms.

“A sleeping pod with heat, power, a private bathroom and microwave should be considered minimum standard if this model was advanced in Vancouver,” staff wrote.

Zoning would also have to change to allow tiny homes, the report says, and they wouldn’t meet current building code requirements, which require dwellings to include fire suppression sprinkler systems.

Like managed encampments, staff warned, tiny homes in other jurisdictions are often proposed as a temporary solution to homelessness but end up being permanent.

Option 5: Provide a serviced site for RV residents

Staff say it would be difficult to find one site in Vancouver, but they have identified several locations.

When Seattle created a designated spot for people who live in their RVs, it ran out of space and ended up cancelling the program “because they are expensive, failed to get many people housed, and RV residents faced serious health and safety challenges,” the staff report says.

Despite attempt after attempt to move them or to convince residents to go to shelters or accept SRO rooms, tent cities persist in Vancouver. Since 2016, there has been a semi-organized encampment somewhere in the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown or on industrial land in East Vancouver.

In their report, city staff tried to map out what kind of housing tent city residents would move into. They rated shelters, RVs and SRO buildings as likely to have “medium” take-up by unhoused people. The opportunity to move into an apartment, hotel room or tiny home would have “high” levels of participation, they said.

“Homelessness has devastating consequences for the individual and is — at its simplest — the result of the compounding impacts of lack of affordable housing, deep poverty, and an insufficient mental health support system,” Sandra Singh, the senior staffer responsible for the city’s response to homelessness, wrote in the report to council.

“Often both driven and compounded by trauma, stigma, discrimination, unsupported mental health conditions, deep poverty and racism, homelessness is a condition almost impossible to move from without public, social and health supports or interventions.”  [Tyee]

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