July 29, 2020
The Honourable Ahmed Hussen
Minister of Families, Children and Social Development
OPEN LETTER RE: COST-SHARING PLAN WITH B.C. PROVINCIAL AND MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENTS URGENTLY NEEDED TO ADDRESS HOMELESSNESS CRISIS
I am writing urgently with regard to the need for the federal government to commit to working with the non-profits, provincial and municipal governments to address the housing and homelessness crisis, especially in light of a pandemic that has gripped the country and devastated the livelihoods of many Canadians.
The homelessness crisis is not only an affront to human rights, but also poses an enormous national public health risk. This puts the individuals and the communities they live in at risk. Despite the indisputable importance of housing, I am deeply concerned that your government’s National Housing Strategy (NHS) is woefully inadequate.
Based on the response to my order paper question submitted February 4th, 2020, it seems the largest component of the NHS, the National Housing Co-investment Fund (NHCF), has fallen short of expectations. I was shocked to learn that only 23 of 432 of submissions have finalized funding agreements. Even more troubling was the lack of funding outside of Ontario. Among these applications, over 50% of the finalized agreements were from Ontario and over 91% of the $1.47 billion in these agreements went to a single application in the City of Toronto.
Only 2 applications were finalized in British Columbia, which represents 0.05% of these funds. To say the least, this fails to recognize the housing crisis that has impacted Vancouver and communities in my riding particularly hard.
I’ve also learnt that the average processing time to reach a finalized agreement through the NHCF is 400 days, which is up to double the 194 to 289-day timeline provided on the CMHC website. I am concerned that the application process is long and complicated for the applicants must respond to more than 200 questions in addition to providing the necessary supporting documents. As a result, many non-profit housing providers have indicated that this cumbersome process locks out many potential developers. Lastly, I’m concerned about the lack of new housing being built through this fund. Of the finalized agreements, 5,8861 housing units were from the repair and renewal application stream, compared to the 736 in the new construction stream since the program began in 2018. I should note that the 2019-2020 target for the NCHF was 4,500 new units.
From my inquiries, a similar trend can be seen with the Rental Construction Financing initiative. 13 of the 28 projects that have been approved since the program began until January 2020 were from Ontario, representing nearly 73% of the dollar amount of the loans. When the NHS was first announced, I was of the view that we need to have a more ambitious target than your government’s goal to reduce absolute homelessness by 50% over ten years, but I now wonder that with the current uptake of these programs that perhaps your government would not be able to even meet that inadequate target.
As I have indicated to you before, in my riding of Vancouver East alone, 2,223 residents have been identified in the 2019 Homeless Count as homeless, with 614 people living on the streets and 1,609 people living in emergency shelters, detox centres, safe houses and hospitals, with no fixed address. These numbers are in no way acceptable, yet the count is considered conservative as many experiencing hidden homelessness were not identified.
I have also brought to your attention that 39 per cent of those experiencing homelessness are of Indigenous ancestry, though Indigenous people only make up two per cent of Vancouver’s population. The City of Vancouver has one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness among Canadian municipalities, higher than Toronto, Calgary, and other major metropolitan areas which are also struggling with their own homelessness and housing crises.
In light of our dire housing situation, the extremely low uptake on the program across the country, in particular in the case of British Columbia, is indicative that the problem does not meet or address Canada’s core housing needs and crisis. Your government's current strategy is both utterly inadequate and ineffective for British Columbia. The homelessness crisis will only escalate. If your government claims to take the housing and homelessness crisis in Canada seriously, every effort must be made to be a true partner with non-profit housing providers, municipalities, provinces and territories. The status quo is not good enough. Bold action is required, and your government’s strategy for B.C. must immediately change.
To address our housing crisis, the Province of British Columbia has already begun acting. The province has secured hotel spaces in both Vancouver and Victoria to house those living in tents at three city parks. The BC government has indicated its intent to continue securing additional hotels/motel rooms for the homeless population as interim measures. They have also committed to providing a range of supportive housing measures appropriate to the needs of the individual. Working in collaboration with non-profits and the health authority, a variety of protocols have been established, including protocols to support residents and staff. These include but are not limited to health support for people struggling with addiction issues, food security, the provision of personal protective equipment and increased cleaning services.
While these actions are highly needed and in the right direction, we know that there are still many more who remain homeless in the streets of our communities. Soon after the homeless campers in Oppenheimer Park were relocated and housed, another homeless encampment was formed at a Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (Port Authority) parking lot near CRAB Park, with more than 180 people estimated to be living there. When an injunction order was issued against the homeless campers, the Province advised that the Port Authority did not connect with them about efforts to help properly house the homeless before the encampment was cleared. Almost immediately another encampment was established at nearby Strathcona Park.
Residents and community members near the homeless encampments have raised very poignant concerns with me about the personal safety of themselves, their community, and of the campers. Residents do not want to further marginalize vulnerable people, and they also wish to be able to enjoy the park and the community garden safely. As one resident expressed passionately to me, “this issue is polarizing our community in tragic ways.” Another resident wrote: "I share the sentiment of the community member expressing the tragic impact of this encampment on our vibrant neighbourhood. While the layers of government defer, deflect, and delay addressing this local manifestation of cross-cutting and deep-rooted social inequality, our community suffers."
I am also aware that encampments are taking place in many parts of the country. This cannot be allowed to continue, and urgent action must be taken now.
The community cannot address this crisis without urgent intervention and support from all levels of government. Injunctions and moving campers from one site to another is also clearly not the answer to the issue of homeless encampments in parks. What is needed is a real and permanent solution to the homeless encampments. It is my strongest view that this can only be resolved in a way that respects the right to dignified housing for all and with the necessary supports in place. We need the federal government to work together with our provincial and municipal governments to achieve this goal.
When I raised this urgent issue with you on June 17th in the House of Commons, the day the RCMP officers took action to enforce the injunction, and asked if your ministry will commit to 50-50 cost sharing the province, you responded to say, “Madam Chair, we provided $13.5 million for Vancouver as part of its portion of Reaching Home federal dollars to house the homeless population in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. We will continue to work with the Government of British Columbia as well as the municipal government of Vancouver to ensure we address this issue.”
Reaching Home federal monies provided to the City were not intended for the purchase of new housing. That funding allotment were to implement emergency measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in emergency shelters and housing developments: to purchase personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and equipment, to install or improve physical barriers, and so on. By no means is that money intended as an asset acquisition initiative. Aside from that, an investment of $13.5 million is entirely inadequate in addressing the homeless crisis.
To address immediate housing needs of people who are currently homeless, new units of affordable housing needs to be acquired and constructed. Additional hotels need to be purchased and used as short and long-term housing for vulnerable populations. Current affordable housing stocks such as Single Room Occupancy hotels (SROs) also need to be protected and purchased. The Province of B.C. has committed $91.9 million to this effort.
In the past years, B.C. has also been working with municipalities to secure land and constructing modular housing units to house vulnerable populations, such as Indigenous people and women. B.C. has committed to 300 units, and the City of Vancouver has contribution $30 million worth of land for this purpose. $97.5 million in funding is needed to match this commitment.
Another urgent need in the province is the repair and renovation of private SROs. B.C. is already committed to funding the renovation of provincially owned SROs, but privately-owned SROs are an important component to the province’s affordable housing stock as well. This important repair work needs funding support for the Renovation Rehabilitation & Assistance Program RRAP. B.C. has committed $120 million to the repair of SROs, and $120 million from the federal government is needed to match these efforts. An estimated 1,300 or more units would benefit from this funding.
The Province of B.C. has been eager to take swift action and it is imperative that the federal government is an equal contributor to these conversations and efforts. It is woefully clear that the currently National Housing Strategy and housing investments has not been effective or adequate in addressing the housing needs of B.C. A change in strategy and real investments to match the commitments of the provincial and municipal governments is needed to meet the housing needs of British Columbians.
For all above mentioned considerations, I urgently request that the federal government commit to providing urgent resources to help house the homeless encampment in Strathcona Park and to provide 50-50 cost sharing with the provincial and municipal governments of British Columbia to address our province’s housing and homeless crisis.
Member of Parliament for Vancouver East