The youth who were evicted last summer from their shelter under the Granville Bridge deserve credit for the opening up of new rooms at the Dunsmuir House (the Marble Arch was already opened). On the day they were evicted from the 1st shelter, they refused to be dispersed or relocated to Catholic Charity’s shelter. They camped out until the police arrived to throw them onto the street. Then they camped out in the alley. They spoke to the media about how they felt about someone who threw a bag of human feces at them with a note that said “go back to the east side where you belong, losers, more bombs to come.” With the spotlight on, BC Housing kicked into gear and found hotels for everyone to move to. The youth were supported by Carnegie Action, Citywide Housing Coalition, Pivot Legal Society, Streams of Justice, West End Residents Association and Just Build It (a group of condo owners from the Downtown Eastside that want social housing in their neighbourhood). Vision and BC Housing are responding to a growing movement of Vancouver residents, the housed and the not housed, who are working together to end homelessness. Opening up hotel rooms is only a first step. Let’s keep working together, Vancouver residents, for permanent subsidized housing for tens of thousands in our city who need it. We can do it.
Carnegie Community Action Project
HEAT sparks ray of hope
For a moment let’s take a break from the bad news and look at something positive.
One of the undeniable successes of this past year was the implementation of the five HEAT shelters. These came from Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Homeless Emergency Action Team, which recommended reducing street homelessness by opening “low-barrier” shelters–facilities that would accept folks with pets and shopping carts and mental illness and serious drug habits.
The 2010 Winter Olympics preoccupied council this past year. But that train was already moving down the track when Vision formed the majority. While it was not a simple matter by any means, it was clearly a matter of making sure the rollout happened in an orderly and on-time fashion.
The issue that has captured what Vision Coun. Kerry Jang refers to as “our heart and soul” was street homelessness and low-cost housing. The HEAT announcement came within days of Robertson’s inauguration and just as winter was closing in.
Those shelters took 500 of the city’s most difficult to house folks off the streets. The impact was immediate. The DVBIA, the Downtown Business in Improvement Association, monitored the homeless situation over the next several months and reported several outcomes: The incidents of trespass dropped as fewer people sought refuge sleeping rough out on the streets. The reports of aggressive panhandling dropped while passive panhandling went up arguably because more people were being fed and receiving treatment through shelters and the staff servicing them. They were less desperate to fill their bellies and beginning to find some order in their lives.
If there was a failure it was in a complete lack of effective consultation with the neighbours, particularly around the two shelters at the north end of the Granville Bridge, by either city staff or Robertson and his council. That became a more serious problem when funding for those shelters was extended another three months and Robertson continued to duck the flack from residents who were feeling less and less safe in their neighbourhoods.
But those missteps were just a distraction from the real point of the exercise.
By summer, the two shelters on Granville and Howe were shut down, but not before more permanent housing was found in government funded SROs:
Dunsmuir House and the Marble Arch.
If you doubt the success of this strategy let me offer a note from Vancouver’s homeless outreach worker Judy Graves, the city’s frontline expert on the issue. She has known and worked with the homeless people who were in those two shelters since they were kids on our city’s streets. She told me the transformation is a “miracle.”
She visited Dunsmuir House a few weeks ago and sent that confidential note to council. I have abbreviated it here.
“Everyone that I spoke to was radiantly happy with their rooms, with being in Dunsmuir and the Marble Arch, every one of them spoke about how very glad they were to be living inside, that living outside was over for them forever.
“And every one of them said how glad they were to be in their own neighbourhood and not in the DTES.
“I asked them what they were doing for food, and they said they were still having to panhandle for food money. They said after having to sleep out for years in weather like this–sitting outside panhandling a few hours a day wasn’t such a big deal!
“From all the folks and dogs I spoke with this morning–thank you for HEAT. Thank you for Dunsmuir. Thank you for the Marble Arch. Thank you for welcoming the dogs. Thank you for bringing us back together with the awesome Raincity staff. Thank you for coming through for us.”
The problem of street homelessness is far from solved. But there is at least this ray of hope. And what better season for it.