CBC News, Justin McElroy, April 29 (interview with BCNPHA CEO Jill Atkey)
The B.C. government’s announcement that more than 600 spaces in hotel rooms and community centres have been secured for homeless people in Vancouver have brought with it a call for further action.
Namely, that it shouldn’t just temporarily take over underused hotels, but outright purchase some of them for low-income residents.
“We need to develop as a province an acquisition strategy to buy the hotels,” said Jill Atkey, president of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association.
Atkey believes the province should look both at hotels and other aging purpose-built rental stock as opportunities to dramatically increase the amount of shelter-rate housing available.
Money has never been cheaper in modern times, she argues, and land values in Vancouver were already going through a dip before COVID-19.
With tourism one of the last sectors of the economy likely to recover, Atkey argues the cost-benefit ratio for a government takeover might never be higher.
“The world has shifted,” she said.
“We need to be thinking about things differently to make sure we’re not in this situation again. Opportunities that didn’t exist two months ago all of a sudden now exist.”
The government was able to move quickly — both in ordering homeless camps to shut down by May 9 and securing hundreds of hotel units — because of the powers it has after declaring an emergency last month.
But Downtown Eastside advocates say COVID-19 has shown that old arguments about politicians having their hands tied when it comes to stepping in and taking action in the Downtown Eastside don’t hold water.
“We’re seeing how much government can do when it wants to,” said Vancouver Coun. Jean Swanson, who has been involved with organizations in the Downtown Eastside for 45 years.
“Free bus fare. Safe supply. $2,000 a month for [laid-off] workers. Government can do a lot when it wants to, and one of the things that could do would be to basically end homelessness.”
Swanson has been saying the government should “end homelessness” for a while, just like dozens of other Vancouver politicians have done in the past. And if government announcements could solve the problems of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, they would have been solved dozens of times by now.
But she says the response to COVID-19 is a clear sign that the government has the ability to move quickly.
“I think there’s reason to be optimistic about the people that get hotel rooms. But what I’m trying to do is push the optimism past them, to everybody that’s homeless,” Swanson said.
Homelessness on the rise
Swanson and Atkey’s optimism is tempered by the fact that the immediate effect of COVID-19 has been an increase in the homeless population.
Vancouver already had its highest homeless count since its annual survey began in 2002. And because of guidelines around physical distancing — guidelines that Vancouver Coastal Health’s head doctor Patricia Daly said were “over-interpreted” — many that used to be precariously housed are now on the streets.
“A lot of people were crashing with friends who lived in supportive housing,” said Katie Ward, a Downtown Eastside resident and drug user advocate who has been advising the City of Vancouver.
“The no guest policy, no visitors … restricted access policy was announced — that was at least 400 people who suddenly became homeless. No warning whatsoever. That’s all the people you see wandering around with suitcases right now.”
With the number of people who need help greater than ever, and the opportunity for the government to act quickly already established, Ward hopes it’s a tipping point.
But she knows there have been plenty of possible tipping points before that have only devolved into familiar dynamics.
“We’ve been doing these patchwork Band-Aids,” she said.
“This is an opportunity to say … instead of making it less bad, let’s actually plan more comprehensively.”