Gary Mason is a Globe and Mail columnist.
Chrissy Brett pulls her arms across her chest, trying to stay warm in a tent that allows the cold, wet Pacific air to blow through its many cracks.
“It can get a bit chilly in here,” she says, as she slowly rubs the outsides of her arms. “But I have a heater and most of the things I need, even if it isn’t a lot. It’s home for now.”
Some of her sweaters, soaked from endless days of rain, hang from a makeshift clothesline. An old microwave and coffeemaker sit on a flimsy metal table. A jumbo box of Rice Krispies rests open on its side. A flat of bottled water sits on the mud floor, near a propane heater. There are porcelain vases filled with dry flowers and a large umbrella open in the corner.
These are but a fraction of the miscellany of items that have found their way into Ms. Brett’s rough-and-ready abode.
“I don’t always get the greatest sleeps in here,” Ms. Brett tells me. “There is often a lot of noise outside. But this will do for now. This is where change will come from.”
The spot she’s identified as the epicentre of a revolution is a battered tent amid a field littered with them. It is not where you would typically expect to find someone recently chosen as one of the 50 most powerful and influential people in British Columbia.
But there is little denying that as the de facto leader (she prefers matriarch) of a massive homeless encampment located in a large park in the middle-class neighbourhood of Strathcona, just east of Vancouver’s downtown core, Ms. Brett has forced city political leaders to confront an issue afflicting cities and towns of all sizes across the country. Today, you can find the destitute living in tents pitched in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal and, of course, Toronto, where neighbourhood angst has arisen over the homeless site at Trinity Bellwoods Park.
There is no public policy issue in Canada, in North America for that matter, more vexing than homelessness. As such, we now find ourselves at a crossroads: Do we allow encampments to exist more permanently but in less visible locations – made-in-Canada-style refugee camps – or do we finally attempt to solve homelessness in a meaningful way, with the massive financial investment that would entail?
If a country is defined by how it takes care of its most vulnerable, then in many respects, we do not have much of which to be proud. Sure, there has been money spent on Band-Aid solutions to help those living on the streets: an increase in the number of temporary shelter spaces; additions to the affordable housing stock; an expansion of some services for those struggling with mental health and addiction issues. It has all helped, but ultimately has not been enough to root out the problem of chronic homelessness once and for all. Consequently, we have seen a growth in the homeless compounds that now dot our landscape.
The B.C. government estimates there are about 40 of them around the province, which are, in turn, home to about 1,200 or more people. Howard Chow of the Vancouver Police Department says there’s been a 50-per-cent increase in weapons calls and a 68-per-cent spike in break-ins in the Strathcona area since the camp went up last spring. In many cases, the similar encampments across the country have also spawned criminal activity.
Katie Lewis, who has emerged as a spokesperson for residents in the Strathcona area, describes a situation in which people are afraid to leave their homes at night. Families, including young children, have been harassed and threatened by campers. “We absolutely feel for their situation, for their plight,” she told me on the steps of her home. “Their trauma is real. But there has to be a better option than this.”
Battered tents and lean-tos of various descriptions are now strewn across the 10-hectare Strathcona Park, once a favoured destination of young families and seniors who populate the surrounding area. But they come no longer. It’s not a park they feel safe in any more. And depending on who you talk to, it’s either been taken over by poor souls driven to the margins of society by circumstance or activists (”poverty pimps” as they’re referred to by some) who are using an indigent population to further a much broader political agenda.
At one point during the summer, there were about 400 tents on the property, housing a few hundred people. (Some people had more than one tent, others set up tents but lived elsewhere.) No one has a precise number of how many reside there now, with the sunny, warm weather of July and August having long been displaced by early winter monsoons that keep many huddled inside.
Ms. Brett, 45, and born in the B.C. community of Bella Coola to Indigenous parents before being put up for adoption, views the Strathcona camp as a model of something that could be replicated coast to coast. She imagines all three levels of government offering land for “urban reserves,” ones that would be supplied with fresh, potable water, showers and bathrooms. “They should be called exile camps because you can’t be a refugee in your own country,” Ms. Brett told me during a chat in her tent. “They would be given funding to exist until there is long-term permanent infrastructure in place. But I’m thinking we might need them for a decade or longer.”
It is tempting to listen to Ms. Brett and scoff at her naiveté. A country like Canada would never allow the equivalent of refugee camps to exist inside its borders. Except that the city of Vancouver, when debating what to do about Strathcona, did discuss finding another site, away from the urban centre, for the camp to continue. In the end, the idea was shelved in favour of approving $30-million in emergency spending to buy or lease rooms in vacant hotels and apartment buildings to house homeless residents during the remainder of the pandemic. (The city is also getting $51-million from Ottawa’s rapid housing fund.)
Vancouver city councillor Rebecca Bligh said it costs the city $150,000 to house a homeless person for a year in a temporary shelter. Permanent housing, she said, would actually provide a better – and in the long term, cheaper – option. “I do believe governments are starting to see the light on this issue,” she told me. “Permanent housing with wrap-around social services is the only way to go.”
Iain De Jong has been working on finding solutions to the homelessness crisis for more than 20 years. As president and chief executive of Toronto-based OrgCode Consulting Inc., a company that often works on the homelessness issue for governments and non-profits, he has watched tent cities rise up across the country. He said he believes they are a natural byproduct of a political class that has chosen to manage the problem of homelessness, rather than fix it.
“There are lots of examples of efforts to get people out of camps and into shelters and then into permanent housing with the proper supports to ensure they deal with the issues that may have made them homeless in the first place,” Mr. De Jong told me. “But bringing those approaches to scale, well, that’s been a big problem.”
Mr. De Jong worries we may be approaching a tipping point where people become resigned to the encampments we now see. “I think we may be getting to a place where they are normalized, where there isn’t a public outcry because we think human beings should live that way. And when we get there, then we, as a country, have lost our moral compass.”
The federal government, it would appear, is not ready to throw in the towel quite yet. In September’s Speech from the Throne, the Liberals provoked a “did I hear that right?” moment, when it promised to end chronic homelessness in Canada. Not reduce it. End it. The centrepiece of the pledge is a $1-billion rapid housing initiative, which will help build much-needed affordable housing across the country.
The last person who promised to end homelessness was former Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson. It turned out to be a futile vow that would haunt him throughout a decade (2008-2018) in office. So why did his efforts prove fruitless? Money.
“You know, I thought I could leverage the Olympics, which we were going to be putting on in 2010,” Mr. Robertson told me recently. “I mean we had the world coming to our city and we had homeless people dying on our streets. So, I mean, if not then, when?”
He found a somewhat willing partner in the B.C. premier at the time, Gordon Campbell, but Mr. Robertson said the federal Conservatives had no interest in contributing to solving the problem. And, he said, unless you have Ottawa and the provincial government willing to bankroll housing and the necessary health supports to help people overcome their various problems, it’s a lost cause. Cities simply don’t have the ability to raise the funds necessary to have a critical impact on the homeless situation.
“We were able to get some housing built, for sure, but it didn’t even begin to put a dent in the homeless numbers,” Mr. Robertson recalled. “After Gordon Campbell left office, and Christy Clark took over as premier, she had no interest in this issue at all. So it really just stalled for a lack of funding and it’s really sad.”
He paused for a few seconds. You could sense the matter still bothered him.
“You know, this is a humanitarian crisis in our midst and the problem is solvable. It’s not rocket science. It’s building housing and providing health care support. That’s it. And you either decide as a society you want to make it a priority or you don’t.”
So, how big a problem do we have?
According to the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH), about 235,000 people in this country find themselves without shelter every year. On any given night, the number is about 35,000. Of the overall number, about 15 per cent are chronically homeless. And with this group, there are usually attendant issues – addiction, mental-health challenges – that contribute to their situation.
Indigenous men are 11 times more likely to use a homeless shelter than a non-Indigenous man. An Indigenous woman is 15 times more likely to need a place to stay than her non-Indigenous counterpart.
The situation in which we find ourselves today has its roots in federal polices dating back to the 1980s and 90s, according to Tim Richter, president of the CAEH. Governments of the day, of both Liberal and Conservative persuasions, cut funding for social housing and transfers to the provinces for welfare and health care in a bid to wrestle with rising deficits. You can draw a direct line between those decisions and the rise in homelessness across the country. While some cities (Calgary and Edmonton, among them) have had success in getting many people off the streets, largely thanks to large financial investments by the province, many others, particularly larger centres such as Vancouver and Toronto, have not.
“The vast majority of people who become homeless – I’d say between 80 and 85 per cent – get out of it pretty quickly,” Mr. Richter said in an interview. “They may have lost their job, or failed to make a rent payment, but they end up getting back on their feet pretty quickly. They come to an emergency shelter for a short stay and we often never see them again.”
It’s the chronically homeless, the other 15 per cent, who are the ones who often need to be taken to hospital, or are apprehended by police for exhibiting menacing behaviour. They are the ones who most need our help, says Mr. Richter, and it makes economic sense to do it.
The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness took a look at the issue and calculated that homelessness costs $7-billion a year, a figure that is an accumulation of dollars spent on police, justice, health care and temporary shelters, to name a few of the line items.
The Observatory believes an investment of $44-billion over 10 years could solve chronic homelessness in Canada – or $4.4-billion a year. The CAEH has put the cost at $55-billion over a decade. Either way, it’s less than $7-billion annually.
A study published last year in the United States, entitled Penny Wise But Pound Foolish, looked at homelessness from the same perspective. The report considered a number of initiatives across the country that provided permanent supportive housing to people who had been living on the streets.
Last year, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told the CBS television show 60 Minutes that the city has spent tens of millions to add 500 new shelter spaces and begun building 5,000 new, affordable housing units. Already, it has allowed the city to take down more than 1,000 illegal encampments and find permanent housing for some of those living in them. Many people point to Finland’s approach to homelessness, embodied in a program called Housing First launched in 2007. Under it, the homeless are given permanent housing on a normal lease, which is subsidized by the government. At the same time, the recipients are given individually tailored support services to help them become fully functioning members of society again. It has boasted steady success.
The Penny Wise But Pound Foolish study also found that those who were housed were less likely to use emergency departments or hospitals in general, detox facilities, shelters or have confrontations with police that led to time in jail.
More specifically, the authors found permanent housing led to a decrease in emergency room visits by up to 81 per cent and a reduction in hospital admissions by up to 61 per cent. It reduced incarcerations by up to 84 per cent, amounting to a savings of US$1,800 a year per person.
It also significantly increased engagement in substance abuse treatment and reduced the need for detox services, saving nearly US$9,000 a person per year. The report found that permanent supportive housing can generate gross savings of more than US$46,000 a person per year, compared with leaving people out on the street.
Sara Rankin, a law professor at Seattle University, director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project and the editor of Penny Wise But Pound Foolish, told me the least effective way of dealing with the homeless problem is the way many cities are handling the problem today.
“Using law enforcement, using the criminal justice system, to solve what is fundamentally a socio-economic problem is madness,” Ms. Rankin told me from her office in Seattle. “For one thing, it drives the homeless deeper into the shadows because they are trying to avoid detection from police.
“But those who are ticketed and don’t show up for court appearances and then are sent to jail, it’s just this vicious cycle. They get out of jail and they have a record, which makes life even harder for them. These people need homes to turn their lives around, it’s the only way.”
The U.S. has a far bigger problem on its hands than we do in Canada, mostly because the situation has either been completely ignored over the years or attempts to address it have been inadequately resourced. Dennis Culhane, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania considered one of the top academic researchers in the world on the subject, said the biggest failure in his country has been an unwillingness to solve the underlying issues – the economic and social forces – that lead to homelessness in the first place.
He estimates it would take about US$30-billion annually to eradicate chronic homelessness in America. He said the number of people over 65 who are homeless is going to triple over the next 10 years unless drastic measures are taken.
“We are already spending $12- to $13-billion [US] every year and only sheltering half the people who need a home, if only on a temporary basis,” Mr. Culhane told me. “But everything we’re doing is remedial. We’re just madly trying to bail out the boat, but we’re not fixing the leaks.”
Which is pretty much what we’ve been doing in this country as well. Fixing the leaks.
The federal government’s commitment to ending chronic homelessness is noble, but a pledge is one thing, achieving that goal is quite another. Its $1-billion rapid housing initiative is a good start, and it should help many communities provide a more permanent place of comfort for a homeless person. But it’s just a beginning.
Look at the city of Toronto. It has a 10-year plan to build 40,000 new affordable rent homes, including 18,000 units of supportive housing. Implementing the plan will cost in the order of $23-billion. According to a document provided by the city, it hopes to get nearly $8-billion of the total required funding from Ottawa; so far, the feds have committed $1.5-billion, and this is beyond the money it receives from the feds’ rapid housing program. The blueprint also depends on $7-billion from the province; but so far Queen’s Park has only pledged $148-million. Meantime, the city has committed to spending about $5-billion of the $7-billion for which it’s responsible under the plan.
The city of Vancouver has a less ambitious plan that would cost $1-billion over 10 years. And it doesn’t have commitments from other levels of government to pay for that plan yet either.
That calculus lays bare just how fiscally challenging this problem is. Cities in the U.S. have passed tax initiatives to raise the money that is necessary to end chronic homelessness. Some are diverting state lottery proceeds to the issue because it is going to take a large investment of capital over a sustained period of time to get it done. Unfortunately, these are solutions not at the disposal of Canadian cities whose taxing powers are severely restricted.
It may take some kind of similar fundraising-type initiative at the federal level in this country to crack the back of chronic homelessness. Perhaps it’s a special tax or levy devoted strictly to the problem. The status quo may seem like the fiscally prudent path to chart, but it gets us nowhere. To help those who live out their lives on the streets, we need to get them permanent shelter so they can get the assistance they need to enjoy a more meaningful existence.
No longer can we say: solve your problems, and then we’ll see if we can find a home for you. That is a long-adhered-to orthodoxy that has mostly been futile. People can’t improve, physically or mentally, while experiencing the trauma of homelessness.
Back in her tent, Ms. Brett thinks about the many friends she has lost over the past few years, many of whom she met at homeless camps, and tears stream down her face. She was mourning the death of one of those camping at Strathcona just that week from an overdose.
In many cases, those who die while homeless are unable to overcome the deep wounds and dark ordeals from their past. Wounds Ms. Brett struggles to cope with herself.
“I have a hard time sleeping at night knowing so many people are being left behind by a country that doesn’t seem to care about them,” she said. “We need help. And we’ve needed it for a long, long time.”
Charity in action
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