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Vancouver mayor calls for ‘temporary emergency relief encampment’ for homeless

Converting city-owned building into shelters, emergency housing also requested by Kennedy Stewart
Mayor Kennedy Stewart has called a special council meeting for Sept. 11 to consider options to get homeless people into shelter. File photo Dan Toulgoet
Mayor Kennedy Stewart announced Tuesday that he wants city staff to examine allowing a “temporary emergency relief encampment” for homeless people during the pandemic and convert city-owned buildings into emergency housing or shelter space.

The mayor has scheduled a special council meeting Sept. 11 to bring forward a motion that also asks staff to investigate the feasibility and costs of leasing or purchasing hotels, including single-room-occupancy hotels and other available housing stock.

“It’s clear that we are approaching a tipping point, not just in Strathcona, but in terms of how we support all of our marginalized neighbours,” said Stewart in a release, referencing the large homeless encampment at Strathcona Park that is home to an estimated 300 people.

The mayor said he spent the summer months talking to community members, business owners, advocates and health care experts “and it’s clear to me that once the summer is behind us, we will be in a dangerous place between the start of wet and cold weather and a vaccine yet to be available.”

That urgency comes as COVID-19 cases continue to rise and overdose deaths across B.C. continue to surpass 100 each month, he noted in his motion, which will require the support of city council to have staff consider the mayor’s suggested options.

“This special meeting is an opportunity for us to work as a whole council, as this is an issue I know all members are concerned about and wrestling with,” Stewart said.

“Everyone recognizes that we’ve worked too hard on housing, on overdoses, on COVID as a whole city to just watch people become sick again, or watch people permanently become homeless.”

As he continues to do, the mayor underscored the need for the provincial and federal government to help in addressing homelessness and addiction.

Previously, Stewart has praised the provincial government for its work on combatting the overdose crisis, including putting in place guidelines for prescription alternatives, or a “safe supply” of drugs, for drug users.

Last week, Stewart also welcomed the provincial government’s move to build another temporary modular housing building in Vancouver on Vernon Drive and commit to building 350 units of supportive housing at sites which have yet to be publicized.

The mayor, however, has repeatedly criticized the federal government for not following through in Vancouver on its $40-billion, 10-year national housing strategy to reduce chronic homelessness by 50 per cent.

Stewart told Glacier Media last month that he had been negotiating with the federal government for 16 months to get 300 modular housing units built. He said the “maddening thing is the money is there” but locked up in bureaucracy.

“Either give us the 300 units, or tell us we’re not going to get them,” he said Aug. 5. “So if the federal government is not serious about this emergency COVID-based modular housing, then we’re going to have to look at other avenues.”

In March of this year, Metro Vancouver’s 24-hour homeless count revealed there were 2,095 people without a home in Vancouver, with 547 living on the street.

Stewart said he believed the homeless population in the city has since grown, citing the pandemic’s effect on job loss and physical distancing measures that has kept people from staying with friends.

“We need to quickly determine what the best course of action is, and then work with our partners in senior government to rapidly deploy supportive services including overdose prevention, access to safer supply, COVID-19 testing, as well as culturally-appropriate services with emphasis on Indigenous traditions of healing and wellness,” he said in the release.

Such moves by the city, if approved, would not be unprecedented, with two community centres serving recently as homeless shelters and the city and province working previously to buy or lease hotels for homeless people.


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