Atlantic Cities
The Big Fix

Vancouver Aims to 'End' Homelessness

Vancouver Aims to 'End' Homelessness
Andy Clark / Reuters

2015 is the "end" of homelessness in Vancouver, according to plans currently underway by the city. Officials have been working over the years to reduce the city’s homelessness, and in July passed an ambitious plan that targets eliminating street homelessness by 2015 and creating nearly 40,000 new units of social, rental, and condo housing by 2021.

The plan is aimed at building multiple types of housing to address shortages, but the first three years focus mainly on supportive and social housing. It calls for 3,650 units of such housing, 1,700 of which are already funded and in either the planning or construction phase. According to city councilor Kerry Jang, the need for this type of supportive housing has skyrocketed in recent years.

“Poverty really started to grow in 2002 after the provincial welfare eligibility rules were changed,” says Jang. The new thresholds cut many people off from government aid. “Homelessness more than doubled overnight.”

He points to homeless counts conducted in the city. Officials documented about 600 homeless people in Vancouver in 2002. The latest count this past March found more than 1,600. Shelters are available, and most of the city’s homeless tend to end up in them, but Jang argues these sorts of options are only temporary fixes. The new plan approaches homelessness both as a housing issue and a public health issue.

“We know that the majority of the people on the street, or people who are homeless or who have been homeless, have chronic health conditions. In fact, there are some statistics that say that 85 percent of people who are homeless have chronic health conditions,” says Karen O’Shannacery, executive director of the Lookout Emergency Aid Society. The group provides shelter and services to the homeless in Vancouver’s downtown east side, where the homeless population has historically been concentrated.

By building supportive housing, Jang argues that the persistent health and mental issues that typically couple with homelessness can begin to be addressed. The supportive units being built by the city are staffed with health care professionals that can provide services through Canada’s socialized health care system.

“It’s not just about building the sites,” Jang says. “They have to be built properly and with the services that these populations need.”

The creation of these units, including those that have yet to be built, are reliant on a partnership with the provincial government of British Columbia. The city, through its own land bank, has made land within the city available for the construction of social and supportive housing at 14 different sites. Four of the 14 projects have been built, and 388 units are now complete and occupied.

The allocation of these new housing units has not been without controversy. A city report noted that only 144 of the 388 units were being occupied by formerly homeless people. The issue quickly became a point of political debate in the city’s upcoming mayoral election. Jang notes that the city's approach targets not only those who are currently homeless, but also those at risk of becoming homeless.

Jang says the city’s plan tries to address the spectrum of the homelessness problem, and is aimed as gradually helping homeless people to get off the streets and into their own homes. That gradual process involves new types of shelters that have fewer restrictions, supportive housing, subsidized rental housing and eventually market-rate rental housing. By creating all these options and providing the services that each population needs along the way, Jang claims the city can achieve its goal of ending street homelessness.

“If you take an urban health approach, your goal is really to make people better. Housing is only a part of it,” Jang says. “Housing is not the end game.”

Neil Donovan, executive director of the U.S.-based National Coalition for the Homeless, says these types of approaches to solving homelessness are promising, but worries that such a large-scale program is too dependent on top-down strategies.

“There are these continuous barriers that are in our way of addressing the problem, and those include people with the belief that they know what the answer is,” Donovan says. He argues that many of these plans are made without consulting enough with the homeless populations they’re intended to help. “Communities that have these types of plans to end homelessness usually never include homeless people.”

But, he contends, progress is being made.

“I’m encouraged by the direction that we’re heading in,” Donovan says.

Jang says that an overarching plan is necessary. The housing affordability component of the plan is seen by officials and housing experts as a key element in addressing the symptoms that lead to homelessness. This is especially true in Vancouver.

According to the city’s plan, the development of market-rate apartments has steadily declined over the past 50 years. More than 29,000 units of rental housing were built in the 1960s, but that number dropped quickly and was only about 6,100 during the 2000s.

“There’s a great need for a certain kind of rental housing,” says Penny Gurstein, director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia. “The only significant kind of rental housing that’s being provided is by people who are buying condos and renting them out.”

The city’s plan aims to enable 11,000 new market-rate rentals to enter the market by 2021. Jang says the city will offer tax incentives and other bonuses to developers who build rental units.

But as Gurstein notes, incentivizing rental housing can be a tough sell. She says a previously crafted plan called the Short-Term Incentives for Rental Housing program has struggled to take hold.

“It hasn’t been as attractive to developers as it could be,” Gurstein says. “Right now it’s still much more profitable for them to be building condos.”

Gurstein says the federal government hasn’t played enough of a role in encouraging this type of development. A city report on its rental strategy agrees. The report notes that “without a significant increase in the amount of subsidy or other public incentives available through other levels of government, a meaningful increase in the number of new purpose-built rental housing units in Vancouver is unlikely.”

Gurstein argues that with few options, it will become harder for many of the city’s low- and middle-income workers to afford to live in the city.

“That’s something that the federal government can do,” Gurstein says, “but they’re not doing it at this point.”

O’Shannacery agrees.

“Quite frankly, the federal government has to be really encouraged to participate in this,” O’Shannacery says. “I am perplexed that the federal government does not actually have a housing strategy.”

Jang is optimistic that city’s plan will help address some of these issues, but agrees that the city needs partners at the provincial and federal levels. He says the city, meanwhile, is doing all it can.

“It’s taken successive city councils and administrations to tackle the problem,” says Jang. “We’re getting there.”

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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