Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart wants the city to consider temporarily sanctioning a homeless encampment as an emergency measure, a reversal of his earlier position, which emphasized more permanent options.
With changing conditions and COVID-19 cases on the rise, city staff must consider all options, which also include buying units in hotels or single-room occupancy buildings, or temporarily converting city-owned buildings, he said on Tuesday.
But some councillors are wary of the proposal, saying it’s the province’s responsibility to provide housing. They are instead recommending that the city focus on temporary disaster relief shelters as a short-term measure until hundreds of units of provincial housing come online next year.
The mayor has called a special council meeting for Friday to vote on his motion asking city staff to report by Oct. 2 on the cost and feasibility of the options.
The dismantling of homeless encampments at Oppenheimer Park and Crab Park this year led to a large encampment at Strathcona Park, which is in a more residential area of East Vancouver. Relocating some campers to a hotel in the downtown core has resulted in growing tensions among some locals, who say they feel unsafe and are uncomfortable with deteriorating neighbourhood conditions, including open drug use by some.
Mr. Stewart previously rejected the idea of a sanctioned encampment, saying the city needs permanent housing solutions, but said on Tuesday that “changing circumstances” necessitated a rethink. Increased visible homelessness and housing projects that won’t be ready for months mean immediate, alternate measures must be considered, he said.
“I’ve been increasingly concerned with what’s happening with homelessness right across our city… if you look at Yaletown, the West End, Crosstown, Gastown, Chinatown and Strathcona,” Mr. Stewart said in an interview.
“We’re really seeing an increase in homelessness, tents where we’ve never seen them before, folks sleeping rough and, of course, the growing encampment in Strathcona. I’ve been talking with senior levels of government to see what they might be open to do at this point, but it really seems they need a push from council.”
Mr. Stewart’s motion asks for staff to work with BC Housing and other government agencies to secure long-term options, and for the mayor to request federal and provincial funding to cover costs associated with any alternatives approved.
Councillor Rebecca Bligh expressed skepticism over the proposal, noting that the clearing of Oppenheimer Park showed that merely providing housing does not work. Some homeless people were moved in May to a hotel purchased by the province, while others relocated to other parks.
“[The hotel] just gets filled up” and nothing changes, Ms. Bligh said. “Why would we do the same thing again? … We have people who have [single-room occupancy] rooms living in the park.”
Ms. Bligh also resisted the idea of providing a sanctioned encampment: “We don’t want to be seen to be doing the job of the province,” she said.
Ms. Bligh and Councillor Michael Wiebe have drafted their own motion proposing a “hyper-focused” plan that would entail talking to homeless people individually about what they need.
Temporary disaster relief shelters would provide services such as harm reduction supports for drug users, housing and health referral, options for both low-barrier and sober living, and trauma-informed and culturally appropriate supports, their motion states.
The motion says the shelters would be provided “as a way to facilitate decampments in Vancouver parks, and specifically Strathcona Park,” and staff to report after six months on their effectiveness and whether to continue with them.
“We need to make sure we are stepping up as a city," Mr. Wiebe said. Housing is a provincial responsibility, but “it is our jurisdiction to take care of our residents.”
The 2020 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count, conducted over a 24-hour period in March before COVID-19 restrictions were enacted, identified at least 2,095 people experiencing homelessness in the city of Vancouver, according to preliminary numbers. This included 547 people who were unsheltered and 1,548 with either no fixed address or who were living in temporary shelters.
Cities across Canada have reported increases in homelessness and related issues during the pandemic. Victoria, which experimented with a sanctioned encampment before the province dismantled it under a public safety order, passed a motion last month that would give priority to housing for homeless people who have lived in the area for more than a year.
In Toronto – which, unlike Vancouver and Victoria, is responsible for its social housing – staff put forward a report last Friday proposing ideas like leasing office space and converting it to housing, turning shelter space into permanent housing and ramping up the construction of temporary modular housing.
That report, going to council on Sept. 22, was prompted by the growth of downtown encampments after shelter space for homeless people was reduced because of safety precautions around the pandemic.
Vancouver’s single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels have for decades provided hundreds of relatively affordable housing units, even as residents and advocates raised concerns about health and safety in old, deteriorating buildings.
After years of such complaints, the city ordered two of the most rundown SROs, the Regent and the Balmoral, to be closed. The Balmoral stopped operating in 2017 and the Regent in 2018. Together, the two provided about 300 units of housing.
The buildings are owned by companies controlled by siblings Pal Singh Sahota, 81, and Parkash Kaur Sahota, 90, according to court filings.
The city in July, 2018, announced plans to expropriate both buildings. In November, 2019, council voted unanimously to expropriate them for $1 each, based on a city staff report that said it would cost millions to renovate the properties and that the city’s efforts to negotiate a purchase with the owners had failed.
The owners in December, 2019, filed a petition for judicial review in B.C. Supreme Court, challenging the city’s legal authority to expropriate the buildings and the process it used to approve them.
A court hearing is scheduled for October.
With a report from Wendy Stueck
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