Henry Braun was a city councillor in Abbotsford, a semi-rural municipality in the Fraser Valley where chicken farms share the landscape with shopping malls and other urban realities, the day that co-existence took a turn.
On June 4, 2013, city workers deliberately dumped chicken manure on a site where homeless people had been staying in preceding months in an escalation of efforts to make the squatters feel unwelcome.
The incident triggered a lawsuit and a 2015 Supreme Court of B.C. decision that struck down city bylaws that prohibited homeless people from sleeping overnight in parks.
Today, Mr. Braun is in his second term as mayor, having won the job in 2014 after promising to take a new approach to homelessness.
In that role, he’s embraced the province’s push to build modular housing for people living in camps, doorways and hidden pockets of the city. Under the initiative, the province typically pays for factory-built modules to be put up on city-owned sites. The province also pays for support staff.
“It’s not just [the housing] – it’s all the wraparound services that come with it,” he added.
With two new modular housing projects announced last year, Abbotsford is part of one of the largest “housing first” programs seen to date in Canada. In “housing first” programs, chronically homeless people get homes without having to meet other other requirements, such as not using drugs or alcohol.
The program comes as communities around the province grapple with rising numbers of people who are homeless, including families and seniors. A 2017 regional homeless count for Metro Vancouver found homelessness increased by 30 per cent since 2014, to 3,605 people, with half of respondents saying they had been homeless for more than a year.
But the push to address that through modular housing has not all been smooth sailing.
In Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, RCMP recently formed a task force to respond to a spike in calls for service in the vicinity of two provincially run housing projects. Last year, dozens of Richmond residents rallied against a proposed modular housing project in the city. (It opened in April.)
In Maple Ridge – a city of about 83,000 an hour’s drive east of Vancouver – the provincial New Democratic government plans to build a modular housing project despite opposition from the city’s mayor and most of its council. That move comes with political risk: Maple Ridge has two ridings held by NDP MLAs, both of whom have expressed support for the housing project and could wind up in the crosshairs of voters who oppose it.
B.C. announced its temporary modular housing program in September, 2017, saying it would spend $291-million to build 2,000 modular housing units around the province.
As of April, 2019, about 1,300 were complete, with another 800 under way. Modular projects have gone up in 22 communities around the province.
With that initial funding spoken for, the province last year announced another program, the Supportive Housing Fund, which included money for more modular units. About 400 are under way through that program.
Tenants pay the provincial assistance rate of $375 a month. Non-profit groups operate the buildings under contract to the province.