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The media housing wars

February 4th, 2010 · 75 Comments

It’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s going to be a battle for public opinion in the next three weeks about homelessness in Vancouver as the 2010 Olympics media descend on the city.

You would think that just telling the plain truth about homelessness in this province would be compelling enough for even the most radical housing advocates. Apparently not, though.

The facts are: In 2001, the new Liberal provincial government cancelled all social-housing projects and, except for a few special deals, didn’t get back into putting money into real social housing for another five years. Then they made welfare a lot harder to get, especially for anyone whose cognitive/mental health/drug problems made it a challenge for them to jump through multiple hoops.

Things didn’t change until Premier Gordon Campbell, under pressure from mayors in places like Nanaimo, Kelowna and Prince George, established a special homelessness initiative. A few projects started to trickle through the pipeline, but none of those projects opened their doors until recently.

In the meantime, homelessness more than doubled in the Lower Mainland, going from about 1,100 people in 2002 to almost 2,700 in 2008. No one can say for sure whether it was the freeze on social housing, the loss of cheap private housing as the real-estate market as the region continued to boom, or the new welfare rules.

Whatever it was, by March 2008, the number of people sleeping outside had increased by fivefold, from about 300 to about 1,500 — a far bigger increase than the numbers of people in shelters. There were likely many more who were missed.

The province and specifically Housing Minister Rich Coleman put on a super-human effort in the last two years to grapple with that housing problem. They’ve put in tens of millions of dollars, bought up two dozen residential hotels in the Downtown Eastside to preserve them for low-income residents, and started construction for sure on five new social-housing projects out of a promised 14.

But that hasn’t been enough. There are still people sleeping outside, including the guy I keep passing who’s been sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the Hotel Georgia construction site the last two weeks. On top of that, people who are housed don’t have enough money to live on so they’re panhandling on the street.

That’s all pretty bad.

But for a certain group of housing activists who either 1) are afraid that won’t get the media’s attention  or  2) really believe all the strange stuff they’re saying, telling that story isn’t dramatic enough. They feel compelled to embellish: Homeless people are being shipped out of town. The Assistance to Shelter Act was passed to help clean the streets during the Olympics. Over 1,000 units of low-cost Downtown Eastside housing have been lost since Vancouver’s bid win was announced in July 2003. Homeless people are dying (the implication being that they are dying on the streets because of the province’s callous refusal to provide them with any form of shelter).

And, sadly, reporters are repeating those stories … with formulaic denials from “the other side” in their stories.

I realize I’m spitting in the wind here, but on the off chance that anyone cares

1. There has been zero concrete evidence provided by anyone that homeless people are being shipped out of town. It’s the constant rumour. In spite of that, no shelter operator or homeless person or police force or politician in towns outside of Vancouver has gone on the record once in the past five years to confirm that this is happening.

2. The effectiveness of the Assistance to Shelter Act can be debated. It’s not clear to me how an act that says homeless people can be forced into shelters is supposed to work when everyone, including the housing minister and police, say that they’re not really supposed to be forced. But one important point everyone is forgetting: legally, it only comes into effect when defined levels of cold or wet weather prevail. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, the crocuses are coming up, there’s no snow and the weather is balmy. That means the act is not in effect and not likely to be in effect.

3. I don’t have the exact count, but I don’t doubt that there have been 1,000 units of low-cost housing lost since July of 2003. That’s almost seven years ago. Anyone who cares to look at previous counts of housing loss in the Downtown Eastside, which the city has been tracking every year, can see that the Downtown Eastside has been losing SRO rooms and rooming-house space for the last 30 years at the rate of 70-120 units a year. The city’s policy had always been to try to replace those lost units with social housing. That plan went into the garbage can when the province stopped funding social housing. Now it’s bought up and preserved at least 1,000 units. Figure that out yourself on the balance scale.

4. Lastly. I got a news release this week from Am Johal with the news that 96 homeless people have died in the past three years, according to statistics obtained from the coroner’s office. That seems awful at first glance. I know that I have found it heart-breaking to hear about people being found dead among their belongings in Stanley Park or burning to death in alleys — deaths that are clearly related to the conditions those people were forced to live in.

But when you look more closely at the statistics, they’re vague. The 96 people who died are people who happened to have no fixed address. It’s not at all clear what the real cause was. And when you look at provincial statistics overall, it’s even less clear how meaningful those statistics are.

After all, according to the highest homelessness count I’ve been able to find on public record (the assessment from the NDP’s task force), there are approximately 10,000 people in shelters or on the streets in the province. Out of population of four million, that’s 1/4 of one per cent of the population that’s homeless. When you look at statistics on deaths, just over 30,000 people a year die in the province. If, among those, 30 people are homeless, they account for 1/10 of one per cent of the deaths.

Of course, my statistics are incomplete too. To be accurate, I should compare the average age of death for the total population and for those who were homeless. My guess is that those with no fixed address were younger, on average — a sign that the hard conditions they lived in had taken a toll. But I don’t know for sure. So I’d want to do more work before I sent out any news releases.

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