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Vancouver council commits $30 million to fight homelessness

City to buy, lease hotels, open shelters, move homeless people into 2400 Motel
Vancouver city council directed staff Thursday to use $30 million to help buy and lease hotels and other buildings to house homeless people. File photo Dan Toulgoet
Vancouver city council directed city staff Thursday to spend up to $30 million to assist in buying and leasing hotels and other buildings to serve as temporary — and possibly permanent — housing for people living on the streets.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who introduced the motion to unlock the funding, said the $30 million is expected to come from a $75 million city fund set aside to acquire affordable housing, some of which is already reserved for other projects.

The mayor suggested the $30 million could be increased or reimbursed with money expected soon from the provincial and federal governments, which have promised the city “tens of millions of dollars” via pandemic-related programs for housing and the operating budget.

“We need to offer our unsheltered neighbours a rapid response that prioritizes safe indoor housing, along with the wraparound services they need to stabilize their lives and stabilize our communities,” said Stewart on what was a 12-hour day of staff presentations, amendments from councillors and hearing from the public, including people living in the Strathcona Park homeless camp.

Council’s decision builds on staff’s preliminary work to negotiate sales and leases with owners of commercial hotels, vacant apartments, single-room-occupancy hotels and rental buildings constructed under the city’s Rental 100 program.

Council also ordered staff to immediately use the 65-unit city-owned 2400 Motel on Kingsway and the Jericho Hostel at Jericho Beach to house homeless people.

In addition, Coun. Rebecca Bligh successfully proposed an amendment to activate “temporary pandemic shelters” in coordination with Vancouver Coastal Health to triage homeless people and “explicitly facilitate supplanting unmanaged encampments, including Strathcona Park.”

“The goal is to be nimble, to be responsive and to connect with people in the park and help them get to where they need to go, which could also include a plan to open up temporary winter shelters earlier than normal,” said Bligh, who dismissed Stewart’s suggestion her amendment was “code” for seeking an injunction to clear the Strathcona Park tent city.

A staff report before council identified 290 units in undisclosed buildings that could cost $125 million to $240 million to buy, with another $11 million required for operating costs, including providing tenants access to health care and other services.

The 290 units would accommodate less than half of the 750 homeless people the city now estimates live on the streets. Council also heard the purchase price for a commercial hotel could cost $400,000 to $500,000 per door, which means senior government funding is crucial to house more people in hotels.

Andrew Newman, the city’s associate director of real estate services, told council that staff was already in “the full throes of discussion with multiple sites” but cautioned it could take up to six months to finalize a deal and move people into buildings.

“Logistically, none of these have been put into any sort of formal negotiations yet, so there is some timing risk around how quickly some of these could be purchased or leased,” said Newman, who clarified later in the meeting that some could be acquired sooner than later.

The timeline, he added, could be accelerated once money from senior governments flows into the city. He estimated up to 150 units could be purchased and a similar amount through lease.

The option to buy or lease buildings was one of several considered by council, including converting city buildings into shelters, setting up tiny house villages, providing a designated spot for recreational vehicles and allowing small managed encampments in parkades, empty lots and on the back lawn of city hall.

Council’s decision to unlock the $30 million came after hearing from more than 30 people who registered to speak to the options in the staff report, including Brenda White, who lives in the Strathcona Park homeless encampment.

White, 45, said she has struggled with homelessness for seven years and developed a drug addiction after being sexually abused as a child. Her addiction, she said, has prevented her from getting a job.

“It’s been a long road for me, and it’s not stopping here,” said White, noting she’s on a waiting list for treatment and wants permanent housing.

Another camp resident, Christine Kennedy, who said she gets $100 per week to cook breakfast for campers, disputed concerns raised by Strathcona residents that crime had increased in the neighbourhood.

“We’re not criminals, and we don’t want to be criminals,” said Kennedy, noting some campers are trained carpenters and welders out of work. “We’re not a bunch of crazed lunatics that run around with arsenals of weapons. Most of us don’t actually believe in using violence. I personally try to handle every situation without calling the police.”

Many Strathcona residents, some of whom had spoken at previous council and park board meetings, urged council to take immediate action to get people out of tents and into some form of temporary shelter as winter approaches.

Residents pointed to an increase in street disorder, drug activity and crime in their neighbourhood, which was confirmed by Howard Chow, one of the city’s deputy police chiefs, who also spoke to council.

The city estimates there are 400 tents in the park, with 200 people considered homeless. People are also living in recreational vehicles at the park’s edge.

Resident Marie Willcock, who lives with her family across from the park, said she found a bag in the neighbourhood with a replica gun inside and witnessed a man running and screaming for help from another man armed with a chainsaw.

“The situation in Strathcona is one that is deteriorating quickly, and it is one that needs urgent attention,” she said.

“To be clear, I’m not attributing this to any of the unhoused residents who are in the encampment. I believe that they are very vulnerable and they’re equally, if not more deserving, of protection from the violence and crime that we’ve inevitably seen following these large-scale encampments in Vancouver.”

Resident Elana Zysblat, who has lived in Strathcona since 2002, said the status quo in the encampment needs to be disrupted immediately and people moved into shelters so they can receive the help they need.

“My neighbour, who had visited the park, spoke to a woman who’d been raped in her tent and heard from dozens of others that they don’t want to be there,” said Zysblat, adding that she held council and park board commissioners personally accountable for allowing the encampment to continue.

“You are supposedly the leaders in charge of the city, that manage this place, and I expect you to take the role of the grown-up here — to acknowledge this is wrong, that this is going badly, that this is unacceptable and irresponsible.”

Dan Jackson, president of the Strathcona Residents’ Association, said the mayor’s motion to unlock $30 million was a positive step but didn’t go far enough to address the immediate crisis. (Jackson’s comments came after councillors amended the mayor’s motion to add the shelter component and moving people into the 2400 Motel and Jericho Hostel.)

He said vulnerable people can’t expect to remain in camp during the winter, especially if there is a COVID-19 outbreak.

“Allowing the camp to remain in its present state through the winter would turn what is now an emergency into a tragedy,” he said.

“The coming rain will make living conditions inside the camp miserable, the coming cold will bring the risk of fires. Health and safety conditions both in and outside the camp are deteriorating.”

Although the Strathcona encampment has been a focal point for residents and media, council and park board commissioners have also heard from other residents across the city, including Yaletown, who have complained of street disorder and an increase in homelessness in their neighbourhoods.

In closing remarks, many councillors thanked each other for reaching some common ground and building on the mayor’s motion, with councillors Adriane Carr and Christine Boyle saying it had been a difficult session of council.

“I’m tired, but very, very pleased at seeing us moving forward on this,” Carr said. “I feel it’s a good day for this city.”

Boyle: “This has not been an easy day, but I think we have landed on some really important work, and I will be glad to see it move forward quickly with the tireless work of our incredible staff who have been working so hard to get us to this point.”