Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs
It is a sad day when the mayor of a major Canadian city concedes defeat by acknowledging it is not possible for a city to put a roof over the head of every resident.
That day came this week when Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart urged council and city staff to consider “temporarily” approving a homeless encampment on city land somewhere other than its current location in Strathcona Park.
He stressed the move would be temporary, an emergency measure until housing or shelter can be provided for approximately 300 homeless people living in the inner-city park. City council was debating Mr. Stewart’s proposal Friday at press deadline but regardless of the outcome, the result will be sure to rankle.
If the tent city stays in Strathcona Park, community outrage will intensify; some residents are already threatening to withhold their property taxes, they are that angry. If it moves, it will certainly rankle its new neighbours.
As for temporary, I doubt it. Without huge help from the provincial and federal governments, it will likely be impossible for the city to cobble together enough housing for the approximately 2,000 people identified as homeless in the 2020 count. Temporary will become permanent before we know it.
The province has stepped up; buying and renting hotels in Victoria and Vancouver to house homeless people and funding long-term permanent supportive housing (there are 350 units in the works.) And it recently committed to build 98 temporary modular housing units, in addition to the 600 we already have, at a site near Strathcona Park.
The federal government, according to the city’s calculations, has contributed less than $200-million to affordable housing in Vancouver over the past few years, and only a sliver of that went to build housing rented at low welfare rates. Compare that with the billions spent on supports for working people and businesses to keep the economy intact during the pandemic. This is as it should be, but it does nothing for the poorest among us.
Initially, like former Mayor Gregor Robertson before him, Mr. Stewart balked at sanctioning a tent city, holding out instead for permanent housing solutions. But as complaints of violence, theft and street disorder poured in from Strathcona residents, many of whom supported Mr. Stewart’s bid for mayor, I’m sure he felt pressed to change his mind.
In addition to floating a sanctioned tent city site, Mr. Stewart proposes to open emergency housing in empty buildings. Heaven knows there are enough of those right now. But even converting these spaces into temporary housing will cost money that the city doesn’t have.
The federal government has pledged some cash for Canadian cities, all of which have lost revenue during the pandemic. But that money hasn’t arrived in city coffers yet, and when it does it will be needed for basic services.
Mr. Stewart and his fragile left-leaning council coalition have been under heavy fire all summer from rival Non-Partisan Association members for Vancouver’s deteriorating street scene. The reason for the increase in open drug use and tents popping up in many inner-city locations has far more to do with COVID-19 than civic governance.
Still, that doesn’t stop Mr. Stewart’s opponents from taking political shots over a homelessness crisis that grows more visible with each passing day. They seldom acknowledge that Vancouver’s homeless problems are emblematic of a national problem.
There are currently tent cities in Victoria, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. Just as the depression of the 1930s drove people into shantytowns, our current pandemic-driven recession is pushing people into tents. A disproportionately high number are Indigenous – in the Strathcona Park tent city, about 45 per cent. And just like Vancouver, other Canadian cities are struggling to house people in temporary modular housing, empty hotels and makeshift shelters.
Mr. Stewart, a former New Democratic MP, was counting on cordial relations with his former Liberal colleagues in Ottawa to leverage help for Vancouver’s homelessness crisis. So far, he’s had little luck, possibly because the feds are happy to cede responsibility to B.C.'s provincial government, which they see is willing to help.
The federal government is utterly failing when it comes to support for Vancouver’s most vulnerable people, who let’s face it, are far less likely to vote. That sounds like a crass political calculation and I’d like to think it’s not true. But it’s hard to interpret Ottawa’s unwillingness to budge any other way.
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