Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.
Days after plans were announced to dismantle three B.C. homeless camps to help stop the spread of COVID-19, I took a spin past Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park to check on progress. It was, I reckon, about as pitiful a sight as you could see anywhere.
Bedraggled tents, belonging to the approximately 300 people who have been living in the inner-city park – some going on two years – were mostly still standing. But there were signs of a cleanup under way. City staff in safety vests milled at the periphery as huge flatbed garbage bins parked on the roadway were filled with detritus. As I watched, homeless residents meandered by, many clutching black garbage bags stuffed with what looked to be their few possessions.
More than 1,000 residents from camps in Vancouver and Victoria are being offered shelter in hotel rooms or community centres to enable physical distancing. And while I am glad that they will now have private, hygienic rooms in which to ride out this pandemic, I cannot help but feel angry as well. Angry because being homeless was clearly not crisis enough to prompt our governments to find housing for all in need. Angry because even though drug users have been dying by the thousands, it took a pandemic to persuade governments to approve a safe supply of drugs (since physical distancing is impossible for anyone forced to buy drugs on the street). Angry because it seems obvious to me that the impetus to house people was the fear that a COVID-19 outbreak among our vulnerable street population could overload our health system, and that would threaten us all.
It is true that efforts have been made before to house Vancouver’s homeless population. The provincial government has opened 2,100 new supportive homes for homeless B.C. residents over the past two years, 786 of them in Vancouver. But the city’s homeless population – which numbered 2,223 in 2019 – still vastly outnumbers the available housing supply. That is why Vancouver’s Park Board didn’t seek an injunction to clear the tent city from Oppenheimer Park: no alternate accommodation was available.
Until, that is, a virus closed community centres, killed tourism and left hotels with no guests. When British Columbians were ordered in March to stay home, the provincial government knew public health depended on finding temporary housing for people living on the street and in overcrowded shelters. The plans came together this week.
Regardless of any cynicism about how we got here, the plan to house homeless people during this pandemic is laudable. But what happens when it subsides?
Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, says BC Housing, health and city staff will work with community integration specialists to find everyone permanent housing. I hope he is right. It would be unspeakably cruel to improve the lives of people who have spent months tenting in a filthy park only to kick them back to the curb.
Could we instead use this moment to provide everyone in Canada with a decent place to live, which the federal government in its National Housing Strategy Act acknowledges “is essential to the inherent dignity and well-being of the person.” Despite the travails wrought by this pandemic, we remain a wealthy country. And Ottawa will be looking for public infrastructure projects to spend money on as a way to boost employment and lighten the recession that is already smacking us upside the head.
There will doubtless be money for transit, which plays well with the public (or at least did before COVID-19) and helps the environment. Let’s put supportive housing at the top of the list as well. Even though housing is a basic human right, social housing has not been a wildly popular investment for federal governments. It’s expensive and serves a smaller segment of voters, at least compared with bridges and transit. But at a time when it is obvious our overall public health depends on people having decent housing, that could change.
It may be that owners of some of the hotels used to house homeless people won’t want to wait for tourism to recover and instead might look to sell. If so, the provincial and federal governments should be ready with cheques in hand.
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