A perfect storm: why the homeless count is no surprise

graph-homeless-population_color-copyGregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver had to put their public relations experts to work in April when they announced that their biggest election promise was broken. Gregor vowed to end homelessness by 2015 when he was elected in 2008. Instead, the 2014 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count showed that street homelessness had increased by 249% since the last count in 2011.

The fallout of the 2014 Homeless Count quickly deteriorated into a blame game. Gregor blamed the Province and the Feds. He told the CBC, “we’d really like to see a longer term commitment from the Province and the Federal government.”

Rich Coleman, the BC minister responsible for housing, shrugged it off. “I’m a little disappointed in the comments of the mayor,” he told the CBC in response, claiming that the province has taken great steps to buy SROs and build new housing.

So who’s really to blame? Is it the City, the Province, or the Feds?

The answer is that all three levels of government have put the interests of the rich and the developers above the interests of the poor. Together, the Federal Government, the Province, and the City have engineered a perfect storm for escalating homelessness.

Model of the 'homelessness iceburg' made by the Social Housing Alliance, demonstrating how most homelessness in BC is less visible and therefore less of a crisis
Model of the ‘homelessness iceburg’ made by the Social Housing Alliance, demonstrating how most homelessness in BC is less visible and therefore less of a crisis

The Federal Government cut most of its funding to social housing in 1993 and followed-up with another wave of cuts in 1996. In 2013, the Feds congratulated themselves for continuing to write $119 million annually into housing in the budget for the next 5 years. The reality is that this only amounts to $12 million dollars a year for BC, or a mere 48 units for the entire province.

The irony is that the Fed’s “justification” for funding housing was based, in part, on the results of a mental health and housing study called “At Home/Chez Soi.” In Vancouver, the study involved placing about 100 formerly homeless people in the Bosman Hotel to “study” how they did. The Feds cut funding for the study this year and many of the 100 people found themselves on the street again. Vancouver City Manager Penny Ballen said that these people were part of the reason the Homeless Count was so high.

The Federal Government is quick to point out that housing is technically the Province’s responsibility. The Provincial Government, for its part, canceled the Homes BC program in March 2002. This program, which used to benefit from Federal funds as well, built an average of 1,000 – 1,500 new social housing units per year from the mid-1970s through to the early 1990s.

Cuts to housing were matched by tax cuts — for the rich. BC has one of the most unequal tax systems in the country, which results in an average of $3.5 billion per year of lost revenues. If the top 6% of BC residents paid their fair share of taxes, we’d have an extra $930 million per year. The BC government collects more money from peoples’ MSP premiums than from income taxes. This lost revenue could be used to fund social housing.

The provincial welfare, disability and minimum wage rates simply do not allow people to meet their basic needs. Welfare shelter allowances, which haven’t seen a raise since 2007, are less than half of market rents.

The last piece of the homelessness puzzle is the City of Vancouver. The City’s policies and zoning rules have led to a massive loss in affordable rental housing due to redevelopment, speculation and gentrification.

The Chinatown Heights review and new zoning rules in the DTES opened the neighbourhood where most of the city’s poorest people live to condos and gentrification. More condos come with more upscale businesses, both of which bump up property values. In the last two years alone, over 600 SRO hotel rooms have gotten too expensive for people on welfare to afford.

The DTES Local Area Plan, which Council approved in March 2014, fails to protect privately-owned SROs and only plans to build about 1,500 units of welfare-rate social housing over the next 30 years.

And here you have a perfect storm for homelessness: The City’s pro-developer agenda means that we’re losing affordable housing. All three levels of government are failing to build enough social housing, which means that we simply don’t have enough housing poor people can afford. Throw in low welfare, disability and minimum wage rates, and you have a perfect storm of homelessness.


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