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Addressing homelessness starts with hearing their stories

Pop-up city halls, vacant housing study, 'Greyhound therapy' capture columnist’s attention
“Pop up” city halls were erected in parts of the city over the weekend to gauge resident opinions around the future of the Arbutus Corridor

One of the enjoyable challenges of this column is choosing the topic to write about. Last week, three stories caught my attention.

The first was the release of the City of Vancouver study on vacant housing. When CBC called to ask for my initial observations, I had to confess I was surprised by the results.

I was not sure if this was because the methodology and conclusions were wrong, or whether I, like so many other Vancouverites, had been duped into believing there were far more vacant units than there actually are.

I suspect the number of vacant units is higher than reported. Nonetheless, what is clear from this report is that regardless of the precise number, this is not the main cause of Vancouver’s housing affordability problems.

The second story was the announcement that the City of Vancouver and CP Rail had reached an agreement on the purchase and sale of the Arbutus Corridor. While I would have preferred a deal that did not require so much up-front money, I was generally pleased with how the city resolved this long-standing issue.

I was also delighted to see “pop up” city halls on Saturday inviting community discussion on the future of the corridor.

While each of these stories warrant further commentary, this week I want to address the third story. It tells the tale of two Saskatchewan homeless young men put on a Greyhound bus by the Saskatchewan government, and sent to Vancouver.

This incident introduced many of us to the term Greyhound therapy, known in the mental health field as the practice by some authorities of buying a ticket on a Greyhound Lines bus to get rid of someone they would rather not have to look after.

I agree with Coun. Kerry Jang, who said that what the Saskatchewan government had done was “inhumane” and “callous.”

While I understood Rich Coleman’s comments to the effect that this is a free country and we cannot really stop people from going from one province to another, I did not appreciate Christy Clark’s welcoming comments. Would she have said the same if her colleague Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was not in the middle of an election campaign?

The sad reality is that Vancouver and many B.C. cities are struggling to address homelessness with inadequate help from Premier Clark. Vancouver’s shelter facilities are operating at capacity. The night the Union Gospel Mission took in these two men, it had to turn 12 other homeless people away.

There was another aspect to this story that disturbed me.

A local businessman, moved by the TV account of the mens’ arrival, offered one of them a job. While this was admirable, I could not help but think about other, more faceless people in Vancouver who are homeless, on disability or welfare, who would also like a job.

I learned about their plight first hand during the 2008 election campaign when I was introduced to an organisation called the Eastside Movement for Business and Economic Renewal Society (EMBERS).

It is a community economic development non-profit organization located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It helps people facing barriers to lead more productive, fulfilling lives by offering economic and employment opportunities. This includes job placements, training and support. EMBERS is constantly seeking job opportunities for its clients.

Vancouver’s homeless and welfare recipients face complex challenges. Many suffer from mental illnesses or addictions, or both, that prevent them from holding down full-time employment. Many have difficulty finding jobs because of their appearance; their teeth need fixing, they need grooming and suitable clothing.

While we can continue to build more shelters and housing for the homeless, a better way to address Vancouver’s homelessness problem is to help people find full or part-time employment.

EMBERS and other caring organizations are trying to do this. However, most of us prefer to avoid dealing with homeless people unless we happen to talk to them, and get to hear their stories.

While I was disturbed by the arrival of these two young men from Saskatchewan, if their story leads to greater assistance for those already here, it may not be such a bad thing.

Perhaps we need to regularly profile Vancouver’s homeless on the nightly TV news.