Has the city given up on the homeless?

Homeless population at an all-time high in Vancouver and across the region

12th and Cambie

Has the city given up on the homeless?

That was a question I put to two of the city’s top bureaucrats – Gil Kelley and Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas – in a scrum last Thursday after reporters received an update on the city’s new housing and homelessness plan. Kelley is the city’s head planner, Llewellyn-Thomas is the general manager of community services and responsible for the housing file at city hall.

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"We're taking new looks at homelessness and we're going to be reporting on that in the middle of April," said Llewellyn-Thomas, after acknowledging the city has expanded the focus of its housing and homelessness plan to address people at various income levels. But, she cautioned, the city is not abandoning homeless people.

Added Kelley: "I would just echo that this is not an either or choice...we're not giving up on the homeless by any means, or the lowest income."

Now that I’ve had a few days to consider my question, I could have re-framed it. It was probably unfair. Of course, the city hasn’t given up on homeless people, although with 1,847 counted in the city’s homeless count in March 2016, that conclusion could be reached; it was the highest homeless population ever recorded in Vancouver.

There’s a lot of evidence from over the years to show the city has made efforts to get people off the street, including working with nonprofits and the provincial government to open new social housing, modular housing and shelters. The city has secured temporary housing buildings, funded outreach programs, opened a “rent bank” and set up a task force with the goal of improving conditions in single-room-occupancy hotels.

In the winter, the city opened community centres to give homeless people a temporary refuge from the cold. The city also recently created what it calls a homelessness services team.  

All of the measures are positive.

But if you look through the city’s “housing and homelessness strategy re-set,” as it is referred to in a report going before city council Tuesday, you could probably appreciate why I asked the question about giving up on the homeless.

The report is clearly focused on how best a municipality -- without the money and tools from senior levels of government -- can address the city’s housing affordability crisis.

I posted a story on our website last week about the nuts and bolts of the 10-year plan. Some of the highlights include building new housing tied to a person’s income to prevent young people and young families from leaving the city, allowing more townhouses, rowhouses and duplexes in single-family neighbourhoods and developing 1,000 affordable housing units on city properties.

Where I heard a lot about homelessness this year was at a news conference in February at the Metro Vancouver offices, where four of the region's mayors slammed the provincial government for not getting more people into housing.

Mayor Gregor Robertson with mayors from Port Coquitlam, Port Moody and Maple Ridge launched a campaign aimed at government to tackle what they say is a crisis not just in Vancouver, but across the region.

Their evidence: There are more than 70 homeless camps spread across municipalities, with an estimated 4,000 people in need of a home. Shelters are at 97 per cent capacity and approximately five people per week are becoming homeless. Another 10,000 people are on B.C. Housing's waiting list for a permanent home.

Aha, so there’s the shift: What was once predominantly a Vancouver problem is now a regional crisis – a move that better explains why the city is talking more these days about getting young families homes than those people on the street.

Hence the creation in November 2016 of a regional homelessness task force, which is co-chaired by some guy named Robertson -- who failed to meet his goal of ending "street homelessness" by 2015 and blamed it on the province and the feds -- and Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read, whose voice was refreshing to hear over those of the usual suspects on this file.

“This is a crisis that is moving in the wrong direction,” Read told reporters at the news conference. “We have no plan here in the province of British Columbia to address homelessness, and local governments are scrambling to do their best – with no resources, no funding to be able to deal with the citizens on their streets who need care.”

But whether it’s a city problem, or a regional problem, or a shift in the city’s focus to respond to young families -- or the provincial government’s fault that thousands are homeless -- let me go back to my original question and completely re-phrase it: How do you explain all this to the guy I saw this morning begging for money at Main and Terminal?



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