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Pitch homeless camps at Parliament Buildings

Take housing battle to lawns of legislature and city hall
If the court rules the homeless have a right to sleep in parks and other public places, columnist Michael Geller suggests the homeless set up camps in front of Parliament buildings in Ottawa, the B.C. Legislature, and municipal city halls to draw attention to the need for more housing. Photo Darren Stone

Warning: this column may upset some readers.

A B.C. Supreme Court decision is expected later this week on three Abbotsford bylaws that make it illegal for homeless people to camp in public places.

The lawsuit was filed by the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors after city staff issued tickets and removed people and their property from an Abbotsford homeless camp in 2013. The group argues that the city infringed on the basic human right to a safe place to sleep.

Some readers may recall a previous trial in Victoria when the B.C. Supreme Court upheld the Charter right to sleep and shelter. The municipal government was forced to change its bylaws to allow people to camp out in city parks overnight after that 2009 court decision.

I find myself very conflicted on this matter. On one hand, I deplore the thought of homeless people setting up camp in city parks and other public places. On the other hand, I empathize with many chronically homeless people who claim to not have other safe alternatives.

By way of background, in the 1970s I was CMHC’s program manager for social housing, approving housing for the homeless and hard-to-house. At the time, CMHC provided 100 per cent funding for new Downtown Eastside facilities designed by the city’s top architects, including Arthur Erickson.

Many of us questioned why we were spending so much on fancy new buildings and ultimately convinced our masters in Ottawa to fund more modest projects, including the renovation of run-down Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels.

Fast forward to today. The federal government has withdrawn from most social housing funding, and the province has indicated it no longer wants to fund new projects after disappointing experiences with 13 projects on city-owned sites and certain renovation projects.

These buildings have taken much too long to plan, approve and construct. Due to excessive design and construction standards, they have also been very expensive. The Pennsylvania Hotel renovations cost in the order of $1,000 per square foot of living area.

There have been other problems. The projects tend to be large with more than 100 units, and when filled with formerly homeless and hard-to-house residents, serious problems erupt generating repeat visits by police and ambulances.

The Marguerite Ford Apartments, which I described in an August 2014 Courier column (and the Courier’s Mike Howell investigated for a detailed story on its problems published in September 2014), is just one example.

While the province continues to assist the city by funding existing and new homeless shelters, these too can be surprisingly expensive to operate and are an unacceptable solution for many homeless people.

They are often unsafe and do not provide an address, which is a problem for those wanting to find work.

Rather than fund new construction, the province now prefers to offer rent supplement programs that allow people to live where they want, often away from the Downtown Eastside, in more conventional housing.

Unfortunately, as a result of the closing of institutions for those suffering from mental illness, and an overall reduction in funding for mental health, both in B.C. and elsewhere, there is an increasing number of homeless people suffering from mental illness.

This is not just happening in Vancouver. It is happening in many cities and countries around the world where homeless people on the streets are becoming more visible.

A number of studies have indicated that when one looks at the problem in a more holistic fashion, it would be less expensive to house the chronically homeless than continue to accommodate them in hospitals and courtrooms.

However, we rarely look at these things holistically, especially at election time.

In real estate, we often say the three most important things are location, location, location.

Consequently, if the court rules the homeless have a right to sleep in parks and other public places, I have a suggestion.

To draw attention to the need for more housing, the homeless should set up their camps in front of Parliament buildings in Ottawa, the B.C. Legislature, and municipal city halls.

Otherwise, we may soon find homeless people sleeping on our front porches; something that is starting to happen in Los Angeles and other North American cities.