VANCOUVER — B.C.’s housing minister announced Tuesday that 350 permanent supportive homes and nearly 100 temporary homes will be built on city-owned land, but they won’t be available for quite some time – a dual disappointment for those most impacted.
Selina Robinson said the 98 temporary homes will be open by spring and noted that even before the pandemic, many people struggled with homelessness, but that the situation has become more acute since. The permanent units could take years to be opened.
“Supports (include) connections to health and wellness services, life skills, three meals a day, employment and education opportunities,” said Robinson, noting the temporary units will be built on Vernon Drive.
She thanked Vancouver’s mayor for the land to build the housing in a partnership that will see the province handle the construction costs.
“It’s so great to work in a partnership with a government that believes in a city and province with help for everyone,” said Mayor Kennedy Stewart. “Less space in single room hotels due to physical distancing has forced more people on the street, and that just breaks my heart.”
While they’re glad to see new housing on the way, both neighbours impacted by the Strathcona Park tent city and those advocating for the homeless are disappointed at the small number of units on the way as well as the long-term timeline.
“Any news about housing is always very welcome. It is disappointing it’s not until spring of next year…and it is only a drop in the bucked given that there are 2,500 people who are currently homeless in the City of Vancouver and in Strathcona Park alone there’s about 400 people who are homeless,” said advocate Fiona York. “It means people are going through another winter waiting for that housing and then another number of years for the permanent housing as well.”
In the meantime. York says advocacy groups are fundraising for portable shower and toilet facilities as well as seeking out warming solutions so that the hundreds of campers can make it through a cold, wet winter – which nearby residents are already thinking about as well.
“I think it’s good in that we always need more supportive housing. I think in terms of the situation at Strathcona Park it provides no immediate impact and we’re not going to see any changes,” said Strathcona Residents’ Association vice president Katie Lewis. “In the last 10 weeks the camp has grown from about 30 tents to 400 and it continues to grow by the day. We’re really concerned as it goes into winter what’s going to happen and also with the increasing rise of COVID cases the implications of that as well.”
She’s urging policymakers to think of short-term solutions while long-term housing is being built, especially considering how many clashes there have been between campers and nearby families.
“We are in a crisis situation right now and so we believe that requires an immediate action right now,” said Lewis. “We need some sort of disaster relief camp to in some way triage campers in a place they could stay that would be safe, they would have proper handwashing facilities, food, it would be managed and resourced and that’s something I could see rolling out so quickly and I believe if the initiative is there it could happen.”
CTV News asked the Housing Ministry about the idea and the question was not answered. They also weren’t clear when asked whether Strathcona Park residents would be prioritized for the 450 units announced Tuesday.
“People who are experiencing homelessness, both on the street and in shelters, will be prioritised for this new housing; this includes people camping in the Strathcona area,” wrote a spokesperson in an email statement. “Vacancies in shelters created when people move into this housing will also provide more options for those currently living in encampments.”
Stewart insisted the only way to solve homelessness is to build ample housing and quickly. He said the same way Oppenheimer Park’s tent city was resolved with new housing, so will the controversial encampment at Strathcona Park, where some of Oppenheimer’s campers went since there wasn’t enough housing available for everyone; others refused what was offered, notably a small number of older Single Room Occupancy hotel rooms in disrepair.
The mayor said that the hundreds of permanent housing units have to go through the same public consultation process as other housing developments, with the first public information session taking place in October to help determine where they could be built. Construction for such projects typically takes years.
“The locations of the 350 permanent supportive housing units will be announced in the coming months,” reads the government news release on the announcement.
“As locations are announced, project partners will host information sessions to make sure neighbours and communities close to each of the sites are informed about the proposals and have an opportunity to ask questions and share their feedback.”
The NDP is building 4,900 supportive housing units throughout the province over a 10-year period but critics say they have been too slow to move on immediate, short-term solutions for growing tent cities that’ve seen clashes with local residents and impacts on park access for families and small businesses.
The campers themselves have urged municipal and provincial official to fast-track housing rather than establish government-sanctioned tent cities or enact complicated camping bylaws that have frustrated both the homeless and nearby residents.
Stewart believes a long-term solution is on the horizon if municipal and provincial officials can unlock federal funding.
“What would really help would be a capital investment from the federal government,” he told reporters.”What’s really frustrating is that that money has been identified and is basically sitting in a bank account in Ottawa and we’re having a very hard time unlocking it due to the bureaucratic red tape.”