The B.C. government has pledged to open hundreds more units of short-term housing for people living on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The new accommodations are part of an effort to dismantle the sprawling encampment in the neighbourhood, which has become a safety concern to those living in and around it. In the past few weeks alone, there have been a number of tent fires, including one that caused several propane tanks to explode, damaging the Imperial event space, and another that led first responders to the discovery of a body.
At a news conference in Vancouver on Sunday, B.C. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said the province is working with partners to open 330 units of housing by the end of June. This will include 89 units at two temporary supportive housing projects in the Mount Pleasant and Olympic Village neighbourhoods, and a mix of renovated units at unnamed single-room occupancy hotels and in supportive housing, he said.
Mr. Kahlon said the move is part of the government’s broader plan to make the Downtown Eastside a healthier, safer and more hopeful place.
“These are short-term spaces; we are working very closely with the City of Vancouver to build longer-term, affordable housing for people,” he said. “The goal is for people to get into shelters, then get into supportive housing or in some cases complex-care housing and then, once they’ve got that stability, to get them into either affordable rental units or market rental.”
Mr. Kahlon made the announcement alongside Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim, who swept to a decisive victory in last October’s municipal election in part because of a promise to address the social issues that have long plagued the neighbourhood and worsened over the course of the pandemic.
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Mr. Sim said Sunday that he’s proud of the collaborative work the two governments have accomplished since then, such as securing more funding for public safety and sanitation, but acknowledged that a long road lies ahead.
“Every single day, we hear heartbreaking stories related to vandalism, and theft, and overdose deaths, and tent fires, and increasing acts of violence and sexual abuse – especially against women, and especially against Indigenous women,” he said.
“These challenges, to state the obvious, are real and significant. They are bigger than just Vancouver; they impact our entire region. And, I want to be very clear, despite all the great things that are going on, these challenges will not be solved overnight.”
Last July, Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services Chief Karen Fry ordered the removal of tents and other structures from the East Hastings corridor because of “numerous urgent safety concerns.” Since then, the number of structures has been reduced to 74 from 180, and 90 people have accepted housing offers and moved indoors, Mr. Kahlon said, adding that the majority of people have been offered housing. The province estimates that 117 people remain on East Hastings, of which 70 desire housing.
The mayor emphasized that the government’s decampment efforts were being executed “in a very empathetic way,” with city workers giving residents plenty of notice and providing spaces for their belongings.
Of 10 people living on East Hastings who spoke with The Globe and Mail on Sunday, two said they had been offered housing and all said they have recently and repeatedly had belongings thrown away by city workers, with no opportunity to retrieve them.
Crystal Manfron, who sustained injuries in the tent fire outside the Imperial, where she has lived for three years, said she was offered a unit downtown that day and would be looking at it soon. Dave Dodier said he had been on the street for seven or eight months and received no offers. He was angry at repeatedly having his belongings thrown away, including a suitcase containing his personal identification.
Cole Phillips said he has lived on the streets in the area for 15 years, despite repeated pleas to a social worker and BC Housing for accommodations.
“I dream so much of having just a room,” he said. “I don’t care how big it is. I just want no bugs, drinkable tap water, a shelf where my books won’t get damaged.”