Better solutions for ending homelessness

I have always tried to live by the notion that if you criticize something, you must offer a better solution.

Last week I criticized the City of Vancouver for inappropriately filling large, expensive new social housing projects on city lands with predominantly homeless and hard-to-house residents.

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A case in point is Marguerite Ford House at 215 West Second Ave. It’s a 146 unit building that was filled too quickly with too many people suffering from mental illness and substance abuse and is still struggling to become a healthy living environment. Just ask the police and fire departments who are regularly called to the building.

While we must continue to construct new social housing, the buildings need not be so large and expensive. We should put an end to the extravagant architectural designs that have often become their hallmark. We should also put more faith and money in more cost-effective solutions.

In no particular order, here are some alternative approaches:

Accommodate more people in scattered rental apartment suites around the city, rather than in brand new purpose-built buildings, and provide social services on an as-required basis. This is the approach adopted by Toronto’s Street-to-Home Foundation with considerable success. 

Vancouver’s Street-to-Home Foundation has been very effective at raising funds and supporting the homeless in new projects. However, it might consider doing more along the lines of the Toronto model.

A related solution is to offer rent supplements to people and let them chose where they want to live. While this also eliminates the opportunity for politicians to be photographed at ribbon-cutting ceremonies, it is another way to avoid concentrating homeless people in one building or neighbourhood. Provincial Housing Minister Rich Coleman is to be complimented for promoting this approach.

As we have recently learned from the Oppenheimer campers, many of the privately owned SRO buildings in the Downtown Eastside are in deplorable condition.  Rather than expect the province to buy up these badly maintained hotels, the City of Vancouver needs to become more aggressive in enforcing its standards of maintenance bylaws and compel the owners to fix them.

If building owners do not carry out the necessary repairs, the city should arrange for repairs to be done and bill the owner.  Unfortunately, when the city did this many years ago, a lawsuit resulted and the city has been reluctant to go in when it should.

One contributing reason why many buildings are in such poor condition is that most tenants cannot pay more than $375, the shelter component of welfare.  It is worth noting that this allowance was fixed at $325 for 14 years, in part because Downtown Eastside activist Jean Swanson “did not want to put more money in landlords’ pockets.” This sum does not buy much shelter, as most of us well know.  A higher shelter allowance and greater maintenance enforcement would result in improved accommodation.

Given the urgent need to get people off the streets, from time to time it is necessary to create new shelters.  However they can be extremely expensive to operate and many homeless avoid them since they offer little privacy and security. It is a sad irony that some of the modern new mini-storage facilities would offer a higher standard of accommodation than the shelters I have visited.

One of the many disadvantages of shelters is that they do not provide someone with an address. Without an address, it is more difficult to find employment. While many homeless people have challenges that prevent them from getting full- or part-time jobs, others can work and would like to work. We need to do more for them. I salute organizations like EMBERS which helps homeless and low-income people find employment. In 2008, its workers helped put up all my campaign signs. Hopefully they can help other aspiring politicians this year.

Unfortunately it is difficult to find work when your teeth are unsightly and hair is unkempt. We therefore need to expand programs providing dental care, personal grooming and clean clothing. While many volunteers provide these services, more can be done.

We also desperately need more drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities and family connection and reunification programs. These will be topics for another day.

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