In 2018, the federal government declared that housing is a basic human right, yet in Vancouver alone, more than 2,000 people are homeless. In early August, I hosted a virtual affordable housing roundtable with non-profit housing providers and other stakeholders across Canada, and the message is clear. It is imperative that the recovery plan takes bold steps in addressing housing security. As stated by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Canada is experiencing an increase in homelessness encampments, renters are left out of the equation, there is no federal leadership for people who can't afford rent while big financial actors who are already stationed in Canada are poised to sweep up distressed assets. Jeff Morison, the Executive Director of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (CHRA), added that “the pandemic has changed everything but have also changed nothing in terms of housing.”
In addition to needing to construct new affordable housing units, one of the most pressing issues raised in the roundtable was that without adequate investments to protect existing affordable housing stocks, affordable housing units are lost faster than the construction of new ones. It is estimated that 322,000 units of affordable housing were lost between 2011-2016, and the NHS is only providing 150,000 units over 10 years.
Based on data I’ve obtained from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, I was shocked to learn that as of January 2020, only 0.5% ($7.3 million) of the money coming from agreements that were finalized under the National Housing Co-Investment Fund has gone to applications in B.C., despite bring the province with the 2nd highest number of applications for this program. For comparison, over 94% ($1.4 billion) of these funds have gone to applications in Ontario, almost exclusively in Toronto. This program is supposed to provide federal funding for increasing affordable housing supply and is by far the largest part of the Liberal’s National Housing Strategy.
With such a dismal record, the Liberal government has turned to using funding that has been “committed” in order to meet their unambitious targets to reduce homelessness by 50% over 10 years, even though it includes applications where no agreement has been signed and don’t have access to the funds. Inflating the numbers with partially processed applications will not address the homelessness crisis. The Liberal government needs to stop playing games and take real action.
Since the early 2000s, Vancouver has witnessed more and more homeless residents living together in these encampments. Vancouver is not alone. Tim Richter, President and CEO of Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH), reported during the housing roundtable that the encampment situation has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, as people are leaving shelters.
Each time an encampment is formed, residents and community members living nearby raise concerns about the personal safety of themselves, their community, and of the campers. In addition, the rise of homeless encampments in parks has reduced the availability of green spaces for residents and community members, especially in urban settings where these spaces are scarce.
The most recent example is the large-scale homeless encampment established in Strathcona Park in mid-June. It was created when more than 180 people living in Crab Park since early May were dispersed with an injunction order from the federal Port of Vancouver without a decampment strategy. The latest data indicates that there are now over 360 tents in Strathcona Park, comprising single individuals, young couples, and seniors, with an estimate of 45 percent of the campers having Indigenous ancestry.
The Strathcona neighbourhood is home to many young families, social housing residents, refugees, and seniors, many of whom are low and modest income. At the same time, the neighbourhood is the oldest in Vancouver and many residents, including those who are residing in the encampment, are deeply connected to the community. It is a diverse neighbourhood that is loved by its members, making the current homelessness crisis and the escalating safety and park access concerns all the more heartbreaking.
It is abundantly clear that injunctions and moving campers from one site to another is an untenable strategy for dealing with the homeless crisis. To criminalize poverty and homelessness is inhumane and wrong. This latest encampment is only symptomatic of the chronic homeless crisis in Vancouver. That is why I firmly believe that the best solution for the homelessness crisis is permanent housing with appropriate supports.
On June 17th, the day that RCMP officers took action to enforce the injunction at the Port, I asked the minister responsible for housing to commit 50/50 cost sharing agreement with the Province to address the homelessness crisis.
To follow up with this call for action and to ensure the federal government hears our unified voice, on August 17, I, along with the Mayor of Vancouver and the Member of the Legislative Assembly for Vancouver Mount Pleasant, issued a joint letter to the federal government to take urgent action and step up efforts to address the homeless crisis by entering into a 50/50 cost sharing agreement with the Province to build more supportive housing and acquire new housing stock.
Since 2017, the Province has worked with municipalities to secure land and construct modular housing units to house vulnerable populations. In recent months, the Province has also purchased five hotels, two in Victoria and three in Vancouver, in recent months, as part of a strategy to house those in need. While the federal government has provided a small contribution toward the cost of the 660 modular housing units now open in Vancouver, this does not match the Province’s or City of Vancouver’s substantial investments.
Given the severity of the crisis, neither the City of Vancouver nor the Province can address the challenge of homelessness alone. The federal government must partner with the Province of British Columbia through a 50/50 cost sharing partnership to facilitate the construction of affordable housing and the acquisition of housing stock to provide homes for Vancouverites and British Columbians.