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The debate over solving homelessness

December 10th, 2008 · No Comments

For those of you who don’t scrutinize the comments section on this blog, there’s an interesting discussion going on about homelessness and solutions under one of my posts (which, oddly, had nothing to do about homelessness — the one about the Olympic village and finding the perfect mayor from a couple of days ago).

It’s something we’re all going to be talking about for the next few years, as people assess whether the Visionista’s aggressive efforts are working and whether the city should be doing whatever it’s doing. I’ll be writing about this topic on my CTV blog later today.

Here’s a sampling of some of the posts.

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  • 1 George // Dec 9, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    Everyone and their uncle is going on about the homeless. Sure, it sounds responsible and compassionate. However, lets really look at this issue a bit closer. We usually only hear from various vested interests in this matter, never mind the hooligans of the APC. No one really asks the taxpayers what they think. In Canada, there is NO REASON FOR ANYONE TO BE BEGGING. This is not Sudan or Kenya or the Congo. If the vast majority of the people in this province can manage for themselves, even the thousands that work for minimum wage, than that tells you that one can survive in this city. The panhandlers I see downtown every day seem perfectly capable of doing some work. Yet they sit across from the 7/11 or Tim Hortons watching the immigrants who work the night shift. They watch the construction workers going to their job at the ShangriLa every day, including labourers imported from Mexico.

    What kind of message are we sending to those people when we provide housing for those who don’t do anything for themselves? What are the requirements we taxpayers set for those who will be given some form of housing?

  • 2 LP // Dec 9, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    The reality is that Vision set goals they will never achieve – all to get elected. Que’suprise!

    As I just wrote on Francis’ CTV blog, Gregor and Vision have promised citizens of Vancouver a rose garden, and hope that when daisies come up in the spring, we’ll be okay with that.

    The problem of homelessness is not one that can be solved alone by the city, there are just too many issues wrapped in why people ‘are’ to begin with.

    George, you’re a bit of a hard ass. I like that, but I respectfully disagree with you. Some of those people on the street, yes, need a good kick in the ass. Perhaps even a bus ticket home since many of what seem to be the abled-bodied ones, sound like they are from Quebec.

    Many homeless have mental health issues and those people do need our help though. That isn’t so easy. I know people with these issues and helping them is sometimes almost impossible.

    The real issue here is that homelessness is a much bigger issue than the city can handle on it’s own. Gregor and his Vision team have promised a lot and at most will ever only make a dent.

    If the NDP hasn’t summoned their leader-in-waiting by 2011, he’ll be asking Vancouvites for three more years because he hasn’t finished what he started.

    Sound familiar……

  • 3 Stephanie // Dec 9, 2008 at 7:20 pm

    Just because you think someone appears perfectly capable of working doesn’t mean that they are. People on the streets panhandling often suffer from psychiatric disabilities that aren’t visible to people who don’t know them well. Addictions often complicate the matter. And becoming poor and street-involved increases the likelihood of becoming addicted and/or having the symptoms of mental illness worsen remarkably.

    We didn’t get a sudden upswing in homelessness because people all of a sudden decided they wanted to live on the street. A combination of a tight housing market, government withdrawal from social housing programs, massive cuts to welfare, and an offloading of mental health services made life precarious for many vulnerable people. A lot of them ended up with nowhere to go but the street.

    It is infurating that government does not see addiction and mental health services as a first priority for everyone, not just the street-involved. Try getting a therapist in this province, or a detox bed, addictions counselor or rehab. The interventions that can help someone remain healthy so they can keep a job or keep their housing, or help them out of trouble once crisis hits, simply aren’t available.

    We helped to create this mess. We elected politicians who, as a matter of public policy, decided that it was acceptable for poor, sick and vulnerable people to be abandoned in this way. And I believe it’s our responsibility as citizens to help to fix it.

  • 4 Coldwater // Dec 9, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Wow, George, what a compassionate attitude! It is that kind of thinking that closed down Riverview in the first place and put these people on the street. I guess no one in your immediate circle has ever been struck with a mental health or addiction issue. Glad to know there are pockets of utopia even here in Vancouver

  • 5 George // Dec 9, 2008 at 8:38 pm


    For your info, I know very well what its like to come from bad circumstances. My mother survived Auschwitz, all of her extended family did not. I grew up in a series of 4 foster homes by the time I was 14.

    About a year ago I was at the Tim Hortons on Pender. A few people were having a business meeting. One of the participants did not have arms, so he held the papers with his feet. Here is a guy who could legitimately claim to be handicapped, yet he did what he had to do to take care of himself.

    Why is it that we rarely see immigrant panhandlers? Its that they understand that they have to work and work hard to take care of themselves and their families. I am sure that many of them went through horrific things in their countries of origin. Yet, the ones that are born here need to be housed and clothed and fed. Sure, there are certainly those who have been badly abused as kids and are damaged goods. I as a taxpayer and human being would be more than happy to help them. We make it too easy for panhandlers to survive in the streets. If they could not survive that way, you can be sure they would seek alternatives.

    Finally, I am not saying we should not help them. We need to however have goals and responsibilities tied to this help.

  • 6 julia // Dec 9, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    Stephanie has created a very interesting list of what is missing in our society – no of which is controlled by municipal governments! While I agree we have done a terrible job of making provisions for those who need help, I can’t help but wonder why it is so many of our street people come from somewhere else. Why is that? Perhaps it is easier to live on the street here, perhaps there is more services here, perhaps we are more tolerant?

    It is astonishing when you add up all the dollars poured into our most vulnerable through govenment and NPO agencies and the problem never seems to improve. We are talking millions of dollars. Without trying to be cynical, I wonder if the poverty industry really wants a solution – lots of folks would be looking for work if there were no homeless!

  • 7 Stephanie // Dec 10, 2008 at 12:41 am

    The problem isn’t the “poverty industry”. The problem is that our governments have chosen an approach to the provision of health care and social services that is spectacularly wasteful and inefficient – as my grandmother would have said, “penny wise, pound foolish”.

    We spend obscene amounts of money on emergency room beds for the frail elderly because we do not fund enough long-term care and assisted living. We spend money on drug-related illness instead of spending on prevention and treatment (at least we fund harm-reduction). We spend money on outreach workers and shelters instead of on permanent housing or income supports that would help prevent people (injured, ill, disabled, or just poor) from becoming homeless.

    All of these approaches have much worse health and social outcomes *and* they cost the government more money.

    And now we have a street homelessness crisis, and the government is trying to close the barn door after the horse is out. It’s lunacy. This did not need to happen. It was allowed to happen. They knew perfectly well what the outcome would be, and they went ahead anyhow – because in cutting social supports (housing, income, etc.) creates a mobile, desperate, low-wage workforce for the business cronies our government is beholden to.

    As for why street people come here from other places: lots of people come to BC from other places. Why would street people be any different? The simple fact that one is less likely to die of exposure in the winter would be motivation enough, I think.

  • 8 Corey // Dec 10, 2008 at 1:36 am

    Well to a certain extent I am with George.

    If you take your line of thinking Stephanie, then Vancouver must have a MUCH higher percentage of mentally ill people compared to other cities?

    Something in the water maybe.

  • 9 Otis Krayola // Dec 10, 2008 at 2:39 am

    Well, to a great extent, I am with Stephanie.

    For every single person who (out of perversity, I guess) elects to sleep on cardboard in front of a Tim Hortons (and then beg there all day) there are a hundred who could work inside, if they had a place to sleep safely. And hang their clothes. And wash.

    We all have to get over the notion that homelessness is a lifestyle choice.

  • 10 Corey // Dec 10, 2008 at 3:21 am

    Homelessness may not be a lifestyle choice, but isn’t it the result of one? Drugs of course.

    If you’re choosing to pay money for drugs, it’s tough to come up with rent.

  • 11 Wagamuffin // Dec 10, 2008 at 3:43 am

    This is a good thread.

    I would like someone to talk to the issue of someone who is newly homeless in Vancouver—that is, when someone first hits the first social service agency for the very first time.

    How do we know if they are new to the system?
    What mechanisms do we have/not have to keep them from becoming entrenched in the system?
    How do we provide emergency service, THEN track them and not let them get caught up in a seemingly vicious cycle?

    I saw a demonstration outside the Dominion Hotel in Gastown during the civic election. Carnegie Centre and Jean Swanson and others and they were talking to the issue of the government getting its hands on some of the empty hotels.

    The speakers were eloquent and organized. Not blaming, but challenging. One very dignified native man was especially powerful.

    I can’t say that they had a formula on how to do any of this, or that it would be possible without a lot of court time or that I would agree it’s a good idea to take private property in any other way than through negotiations with a landlord. It was a general idea, food for thought.

    But what struck me the most: one or two women, who had come to watch and who were clearly high, were keening at the end, “Where are our families? Please tell them we need them”. That’s what killed me.

    They weren’t asking for the city or any other level of government to do something for them . They weren’t about “the kindness of strangers”. They wanted their families, somehow.

    I can imagine two solitudes here, too. Desperate, mentally ill or addicted or homeless people. On the other side, families who are too worn down from dealing with them, hearing again and again that they will change, then being disappointed again and again. Finally, for their own sanity, giving up.

    This to me this is the tragedy. I understand that some people come from dysfunctional homes—and some do not. Is family re-unification something that is on the agenda? Maybe some of the homeless would really like that second (or third or fourth) chance with families, rather than be put into SRO’s and the like. It is still warehousing people with the same sets of problems. Where is the opportunity for normalcy? And yes, there is such a thing. It doesn’t exist in large measure in what is happening right now on the DTES.

    I would be interested to know if we put money into that kind of an endeavour?. Does anyone know?

    Or, do we just accept that the homeless are just statistics and process them through to ???? Where are the teams of service folk who work TOGETHER to find each person the best solution?

    Finally, I’d like to caution everyone (and I do this onlybecause I know I can be an instigator): Please do not make too many assumptions about your fellow posters when it comes to this subject. We all have our own experiences, our own sorrows in life. I wish the solutions for this could be so black and white. There are many shades of grey— possibly because we seem to be unable to act at all, or because we become entrenched in thinking about these problems in one way or another.

    There is no one solution. To maintain the status quo is unacceptable. To think that if we just build enough housing, all the other associated problems will be cured, is silly. If we build it, they will come—and keep on coming.

    We need to balance our ability to provide housing with treatment and family response.

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