Having grown up in Pakistan before moving to Canada, homelessness and panhandling were not alien concepts to me. Like any developing country, the number of people who roam the streets without food and shelter were, and still remain astronomical over there. This didn’t make the revelation of a homelessness crisis in Vancouver easy to digest though. As naïve as it sounds, you expect a developing country to have such issues. But not a developed one like Canada. Especially not the magnitude it has reached in Vancouver and surrounding areas.
Take a stroll around Downtown East, and you get a peek inside what this grim world looks like. If you haven’t been around the homeless before, this might be the most gut wrenching experience of your life. Even if you have been around the homeless before, what you see around these parts will leave you horrified.
Horrified not just at the abject conditions these people survive in, but at this mind boggling fact : Homelessness in Vancouver has not decreased. It hasn’t even remained constant. It has actually increased each of the last 4 years, and stands at its highest since the data started being collected in 2002. At the same time, income levels in Vancouver have grown,
Is this a result of an increase in population? Shelter rate units closing down? Housing prices skyrocketing?
It is easy to point fingers, since the problem does not stem from one source alone. The more pressing issue should be finding a solution.
Mayor Kennedy swears by the city’s modular housing strategy, but it is only creating a dent in the armour of homelessness, nothing more. Also, at its root, modular housing is an attempt to make the fall softer, not prevent it. Despite any fruitful policies that help people after they have entered the vicious cycle of homelessness, the primary focus should be on preventing homelessness in the first place.
For starters, the provincial welfare rates need to be increased substantially. The $100 bump up by the NDP in 2017 was hardly helpful when the soaring cost of living is kept in mind. True, atleast something was better than nothing after 10 years of welfare rate freeze, but the measure of a good policy is not just doing enough to scrape by. The measure of a good policy is making a meaningful impact, and that certainly isn’t the case here. At the time the rate increase took place, the average cost in Vancouver for a single room was approximately $548 at the time, leaving less than $5 per day to cover other essential items after the damage deposit and rent were taken care of.
Then there is the case for tenant rights. One component of that is enabling vacancy control, which aims to tie rent to the premises and not the tenant, meaning that a landlord cannot increase rent beyond what is legally allowed following the vacancy of the premises. Vacancy control isn’t new to BC either – the policy was around from 1974 to 1984, following which it was discontinued. As things stand currently, a landlord is free to increase rent as much as he wants.
A second component of tenant rights is preventing evictions, motivated by landlord renovations or otherwise. As thing stand currently, the city has no substantial power to go after people who violate BC’s renting laws by evicting tenants. Even though recently the City of Vancouver voted to adopt a policy that increases compensation available to renters in the case of renovation motivated evictions, it only applies to buildings where owners have applied for a development permit. It does not apply to buildings where the owner has obtained a renovation permit.
There is also the ever present housing price monster in Vancouver, which seems to be in a temporary lull for the time being. The link between homelessness and housing prices is direct. Research has long dictated that individuals and families should not spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs – in BC that figure currently stands at over 50%. If you don’t own a home in Vancouver already, the share of average income required to do currently stands at a staggering 88%.
To Vancouver’s credit though, atleast it hasn’t gone the Salmon Arm and Penticton route by fining panhandlers and the homeless. As macabre as it sounds, if it did go that route, it will only maintain consistency in the manner in which this city has failed them recently – This isn’t a problem. It is a crisis.