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Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs

About two weeks ago, I did something ill-advised for anyone faint of heart or stomach: I drove down an alley near Main and Alexander Streets. I passed by two people with needles shooting drugs into their arms. Next, I came across a man who looked me in the eye and pulled down his pants. I will spare you the end of that story.

The people I was visiting told me that the number of homeless people camped out in the Downtown Eastside is wildly out of control, so much so that they plan to move. They tiptoe around piles of human feces and garbage a block from their door and recently witnessed two young children discover a needle beneath a bench in Crab Park. And although they are progressive types who understood the neighbourhood’s challenges when they moved in and publicly supported a nearby modular housing project, their rights as residents to enjoy their public space are trumped by a huge social problem. They are not seeking wholesale gentrification. They ask only for enough housing to be built to get homeless people out of tents and render their park spaces and sidewalks usable again.

This seems like a reasonable request.

They wonder why, when the city has built thousands of social, supportive and co-op housing units since 2009, there are suddenly so many tents in nearby Oppenheimer Park, Crab Park and against the fence on the north side of Alexander Street adjacent to the tracks. While on a return trip this week, I counted about 50 tents or structures within a three-block radius of Main and Alexander Streets and I missed a few streets. Where are all these people from and why is there no shelter available for them?

Open this photo in gallery:

Many temporary shelters are not a permanent solution which drives people to put up in tents.BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

According to Ethel Whitty, the city’s director of homeless services, most of the people are from B.C. and there is nowhere else for them to go. The 300 temporary modular housing units that have already gone up are full. Ditto for the year-round shelters. There are another 300 modular units on the way and the provincial government is open to funding even more, if the city can find suitable sites.

Meanwhile, the provincially funded seasonal shelters, which just opened, will make a difference as the weather changes and people move inside. There is talk about keeping all the shelters open year-round, Ms. Whitty says, “but that really needs co-operation from probably all levels of government.”

Many of the temporary shelters are little more than cots lined up in a room and are not a permanent solution, she says. “There are some people who would really rather live in a tent.”

This matched what homeless campers in Oppenheimer Park told me one afternoon this week. They ranged in age from early 20s to over 60 and were from the cities of Richmond, Gibsons, Nanaimo, Nass Valley and Vancouver. Some had been homeless for as long as 10 years, but many had only been tenting for a couple of months because they’d lost an apartment and couldn’t find an affordable replacement. They migrated to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside because tents are tolerated – although city staff force them to take the tents down during the day – and there is ample food and social services available. Many are Indigenous people. Some have obvious mental illnesses. One man hid his crack pipe as we spoke. Every one of them said they would jump at the chance to move into a modular housing unit.

Although Ms. Whitty is sympathetic to neighbourhood concerns, she says housing is a human right “that has to take precedent over our discomfort of seeing people living in tents.” This, I believe, is true.

But it is also true that because so many services have been lumped into one area, the DTES shoulders far more of the burden for the city’s growing homeless problem than anywhere else. And it sure shows.

Ms. Whitty says she’s old enough to remember when no one in Vancouver lived on the street. “This is a humanitarian crisis.” Our last mayor and council recognized that and pledged to end homelessness, a goal that ultimately wasn’t met. Critics of former mayor Gregor Robertson cited the unfulfilled promise as a mark of failure.

But the goal was laudable, and fear of failure must not prevent our new council from trying again.

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