Skip to main content

Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver today.

The tents along East Hastings in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside aren’t going anywhere any time soon. In what has become a yearly, summer conundrum, city and provincial politicians, along with housing providers, are stymied about how to provide for a homeless population that includes increasingly desperate and ill people.

This week, Mayor Kennedy Stewart declared that those living in tents along a five-block stretch of the major thoroughfare are already traumatized and would not be forcibly removed, at least not soon.

It was a stark change in direction from late last month, when Vancouver Fire Rescue Services ordered 150 tents and other structures be cleared, leaving community groups and BC Housing scrambling to figure out ways to find shelter for the occupants on short notice.

The mayor, who is running in the October election, was making a clear effort to differentiate himself from the mayors of other cities where police have been called in to clear similar camps.

Several violent skirmishes broke out last year when Toronto police moved in to clear encampments in that city.

Instead, the Vancouver mayor and city officials said the focus is on clearing sidewalks in front of key buildings that firefighters have identified as safety problems and finding housing for those who have nowhere else to live. So far, housing for 40 of the occupants has been found and accepted.

In the meantime, the city will pick up garbage, providing storage, food, water, security and washrooms to people still there, while city officials continue to advocate for more temporary and permanent housing.

While Mr. Stewart characterized the approach as more humane, the tent encampment has raised concerns about violence. Earlier this week, four men were arrested after two guns were seized from one tent. Police said the weapons found in the tent near East Hastings and Carrall Street included a loaded shotgun.

Police and housing providers agree that Vancouver’s housing and overdose crises are combining to make an already difficult situation even worse, as psychosis-inducing drugs, brain damage caused by repeated drug poisonings, more severe mental illnesses and other factors produce a new generation of severely dysfunctional and low-income people.

As Frances Bula writes in a deeply reported piece today, British Columbia’s supportive-housing system, which can provide extra help such as health care and food in addition to shelter, is supposed to prevent people from getting entrenched in a cycle of homelessness. But those with the worst problems end up back on the street, evicted or pressed to leave by housing organizations that have run out of solutions for them.

Frances tells the story of a father’s anguish as he struggles to find housing for his adult son and his son’s wife. Robert Wilmot managed to get the couple a place to live in a newly opened temporary modular housing unit. They had been living on the streets for a couple years before that, so the two-and-a-half years they spent at the Sarah Ross building were a relief to Mr. Wilmot.

But the couple, deeply entrenched in addiction and mental health issues, was evicted in January, a couple of weeks before Mr. Wilmot’s pregnant daughter-in-law’s due date. The couple had failed to pay rent for months, they were hoarders, and on Jan. 2, they set fire to their room and turned it into an uninhabitable, smouldering mess.

Since then, their lives have returned to homeless turmoil. Their new baby was taken into government care swiftly after birth.

Mr. Wilmot is especially angry at the Sarah Ross operator. He believes Atira, the province’s largest non-profit housing provider, whose main focus is providing homes to B.C.’s hardest-to-house, would figure out how to deal with common problems such as non-payment of rent, hoarding and even setting fires.

“An eight-month-pregnant woman and her husband were evicted and placed at risk,” he said. “Why did Atira allow this?”

But housing providers say the challenges in housing some of the most compromised people have outstripped available solutions.

“We used to really aim for a zero-eviction policy,” says Tanya Fader, director of housing at the non-profit provider PHS. “That’s not always possible.”

With the system unable to keep the most difficult people housed, the kind of homelessness now visible in many cities will persist, no matter how many subsidized apartments a government builds.

Where government help needs to be intensely focused is on the 20 per cent to 25 per cent who get stuck in a cycle of homelessness, said Tim Richter, chief executive officer of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

“We tend to invest affordable-housing dollars a mile wide and an inch deep,” he says. “Because you spread it too thin, you don’t get the results you want.”