Chuck Chiang, Vancouver Sun
February 27, 2017
Metro Vancouver mayors say homelessness in the region has reached crisis proportions, and the situation may be even more dire in the suburbs and rural areas than in Vancouver.
The latest numbers show that the unsheltered homeless population in Metro Vancouver jumped 26 per cent every year since 2011, and about five people become homeless every week. Today, roughly 4,000 people in the region are in immediate need of housing, the report said. The sobering numbers were released Monday at a press conference announcing the recommendations of Metro Vancouver’s homeless task force to tackle the problem.
Metro Vancouver mayors blamed the growing problem on the provincial government under premier Christy Clark, saying the province has not supported municipalities with either a comprehensive plan or funding resources for locally-led initiatives.
“We were very successful for three years in bringing the street homeless population down from over 800 to under 150,” said Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, who co-chairs the task force, and first ran for election in 2008. “In 2011, things turned, and Christy Clark became the premier of B.C. There was no commitment to solving homelessness here in the province.”
Rich Coleman, B.C.’s minister responsible for housing, disagreed with the Metro Vancouver claims, noting the province is in the midst of the “largest investment commitment in history” to affordable social housing in B.C.
“We’re always doing more,” Coleman said. “We’re in the market now with another $900 million for affordability, buying buildings, approving more buildings elsewhere. And not all the mayors agree on this one; I’ve heard from a number of mayors that are disappointed in the report today because they are saying, ‘Not us, we’re quite happy with the relationship with the province.’”
Maple Ridge mayor Nicole Read, who co-chairs the task force with Robertson, said the homelessness problem in Metro Vancouver’s outlying communities rivals that of Vancouver’s urban core. The report said that of the 15 homeless encampments housing more than four people in Metro Vancouver, a significant number (two in Maple Ridge, two or three in Langley Township and two in Delta) are located in less densely urbanized communities.
Read added she has had conversations with municipal leaders in the Fraser Valley, and they have seen a rise in similar struggles.
“We know that we’ve had a challenge in Vancouver; we are seeing an increasing struggle in all of the suburbs, and the suburbs are less equipped to be able to respond to the crisis we’re dealing within our cities,” she said, noting smaller towns have more limited taxpayer bases to draw from. “I see it every day, where local officials and local staff are trying to … divert resources from critical local programming to actually deal with crisis on their streets.”
Last year, the methods used by Abbotsford to dismantle a homeless camp along Gladys Avenue cast a poor light on the city’s ability to handle the problem.
Monday’s 12 recommendations include plans to serve the needs of the current homeless population (with an increase to the shelter component of income assistance) to initiatives to prevent people from becoming homeless (such as expanding home care for mentally ill patients, as well as boosting affordable rental housing supply).
According to the rental industry’s Goodman Report, Metro Vancouver’s average monthly rent rose 19.1 per cent from 2011 ($1,027) to last year ($1,223). The vacancy rate fell from 1.4 per cent to 0.7 per cent during the same period. Meanwhile, the shelter component of income assistance — at $375 — has not risen in nine years.
But Mark Goodman, one of the publishers of the report, said that municipalities are not free from blame. In last June’s report, Goodman wrote that many municipalities have not granted concessions to developers wanting to build new rental housing, making it financially infeasible to create new stock that would reduce homeless rates in Metro Vancouver.
“Perhaps with the sole exception of Burnaby, municipalities in Greater Vancouver abhor eliminating, demolishing or replacing existing rentals, no matter how inefficient, aging or low in density,” Goodman wrote. “Instead, it’s easier to kick the ball down the road to tomorrow’s politicians … If they stepped out of the way and let the free market do its job, it would solve the problem.”
Brendan Degan, who is currently living in a camp at the edge of Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park, said he has lived in tents on-and-off for five years, and that many in his situation actually prefer camping, since the quality of some social housing options is poor.
“I don’t think it should be OK to live where there’s infestations of roaches or bedbugs,” Degan said, adding he thinks officials should allow the homeless to live in abandoned houses. “There’s black mould, asbestos, all of that. You go check these places out, its horrid, man … being outside, being able to breathe, I’d rather do that.”
Regardless of blame, Read said it is imperative that officials get people off the streets as soon as possible, noting that the longer a person remains homeless, the more unlikely it is that he or she can be re-integrated into the housing market.
“Over time, losing housing creates a cycle of shame in our homeless population,” she said. “We end up with people who are afraid to even go into housing, who would prefer to live in a tent on a street or in a bush than try again, and that is deplorable. We are Canadians. We can do better.”