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Vancouver city staff reject sanctioned homeless camps

Vancouver city staff on record of rejecting 'sanctioned or managed encampments'
Mayor Kennedy Stewart wants councillors to support a motion to have city staff examine the feasibility of a “temporary emergency relief encampment” in Vancouver. File photo Dan Toulgoet

Column: 12th&Cambie

So you probably heard that Mayor Kennedy Stewart has had a change of heart about this idea percolating in the city for years to set up a sanctioned homeless camp.

Stewart has been against such a move since he took office in 2018.

But in a news release Tuesday, he called for a “temporary emergency relief encampment” to address homelessness in this city during the pandemic. He also called for converting city-owned buildings into emergency housing or shelter space, and buying or leasing some hotels.

Converting buildings is not new, as we saw with the Roundhouse and Coal Harbour community centres used recently as shelters. Over the years, the city has also bought or leased hotels in conjunction with the provincial government for homeless people.

The former Ramada Inn on East Hastings near the Pacific National Exhibition, the Biltmore Hotel on Kingsway and the Quality Inn on Howe Street are some examples that go back to 2014 and 2015.

The former B.C. Liberal government also bought more than 20 single-room-occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside and renovated them, although I can’t recall whether that led to a net increase in more housing units.

Some of that history may come up Friday when council holds a special meeting to discuss the mayor’s motion. If it gets approved, then it will be up to staff to report back no later than Oct. 2 on whether any of Stewart’s desired options are feasible.

That report, however, has largely already been written.

Regular readers will know staff is on record of concluding that managing a homeless camp is not a good idea. That conclusion was reached pre-pandemic when the Oppenheimer Park tent city was still thriving in September 2019.

Will the effects of a pandemic change staff’s position?

We’ll find out soon enough.

But here’s a reminder of what deputy city manager Paul Mochrie told the park board in September 2019 when stating the city’s position on the Oppenheimer Park encampment, which was cleared in April under an emergency order from the provincial government.

“It is not possible for us as a city to manage an uncontrolled outdoor site, safely and effectively,” Mochrie said at the time.

“The costs are significant. They are equal to or greater than indoor shelters on a per space, or per bed basis. And of significance, the province to this point has been very clear that they will not provide funding or other support for sanctioned encampments.”

Mochrie's presentation also included a slide deck that said quite clearly: "City staff do not support sanctioned or managed encampments as a response to the homelessness crisis."

In an emailed statement to Glacier Media Wednesday, Housing Minister Selina Robinson didn’t comment on whether she supports a sanctioned site, saying the government’s focus is on “building the housing people need.”

“That said, we will continue to have conversations about how we can provide supports and services for people living outside or in shelters especially as we move into colder weather —including those people at Strathcona Park,” said Robinson, noting the government recently purchased the American, Howard Johnson and Buchan hotels in Vancouver for additional housing.

As I reported in July, residents in Strathcona and from other parts of the city, including a University of B.C. law professor, suggested to park board commissioners that a sanctioned homeless camp is warranted.

Homeless people and advocates have called for such a facility for years. People living in recreational vehicles —either by choice, or circumstance — have requested a designated site, too.

The Little Mountain property, where a long-awaited housing development remains idle, and the Pacific National Exhibition grounds have been suggested by the public as possible sites. Seattle and Portland, where sanctioned camps operate, have been mentioned as examples of how they could be set up.

Mochrie on the U.S. experiments: “Those measures have not been effective in either supporting individuals to transition to housing — their results have either been the same or, in some cases, quite a bit worse than indoor shelters — nor have those measures had an impact on mitigating the growth of street homelessness in those cities.”

Regardless of what council decides Friday, the facts are 2,095 homeless people were counted in Vancouver over a 24-hour period in March and an estimated 300 people now live in a camp at Strathcona Park.

The mayor, Coun. Jean Swanson and others have concluded the homeless population across the city has since grown because of factors related to the pandemic such a job loss and people unable to stay inside with friends because of physical distancing measures.

All of this homelessness is here despite years of investments from provincial governments — from 13 new supportive housing buildings in Vancouver under the B.C. Liberals to more than 600 units of modular housing, a planned 60-bed “navigation centre” and recent purchases and leases of city hotels under the NDP.

The feds, as mayor after mayor has said over the past two decades, have to step up.

Meanwhile, city councillors Rebecca Bligh and Michael Wiebe have a motion going before council next week that calls for the city to set up a “disaster relief shelter framework” to facilitate “decampments in Vancouver parks, specifically Strathcona Park.”

Sounds a lot like former mayor Gregor Robertson’s move in 2008 to set up so-called HEAT shelters, some of which still operate today, including one on Central Street, near Main and Hastings.

While these ideas and efforts continue, the Balmoral and Regent single-room-occupancy hotels near Main and Hastings — which have up to 150 rooms each — remain vacant. That’s because the city and the the Sahota family, which owns the hotels, are preparing for a court battle.

The city closed the Regent in June 2018 and the Balmoral in June 2017 because they were deemed unsafe to occupy. The city has since moved to expropriate the hotels but the Sahotas have filed a petition for judicial review.

The review is scheduled to begin Oct. 20.

Note: This column has been updated since first posted. The original version quoted deputy city manager Paul Mochrie as saying: “It is not possible for us as a city to manage a controlled outdoor site, safely and effectively." The quote should have read an uncontrolled outdoor site. Glacier Media apologizes for the error.

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