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‘It’s moving in the opposite direction’: City of Vancouver to consider sanctioned tent cities

Click to play video 'City of Vancouver staff outline potential sites for sanctioned homeless encampment' City of Vancouver staff outline potential sites for sanctioned homeless encampment
Vancouver city council will hold a special council meeting on Thursday Oct. 8 to discuss options from staff on how to provide COVID-19 relief for homeless residents and as Kristen Robinson reports, one of the ideas involves sanctioned encampments on eight potential city-owned sites – Oct 4, 2020

Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart has called a special council meeting this Thursday to consider emergency housing relief for the city’s homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Council approved a motion on Sept. 14 directing city staff to explore several options from permanent housing to managed encampments on vacant land.

In an Oct. 2 memo to the mayor and council, Arts, Culture and Community Services general manager Sandra Singh identified eight city-owned sites that could potentially support sanctioned temporary encampments with physically distanced tents and services – including two parkades, four empty lots, the lawn at city hall and a public plaza on the north side of city hall.

List of potential temporary sanctioned encampment sites:

180 Keefer St. – Chinatown Parkade

107 East Cordova St. – parkade

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800 Quebec St. lot

1500 Main St. lot

987 East Cordova St. lot

2132 Ash St. lot (next to temporary modular housing)

City hall lawn

Helena Gutteridge Plaza – city hall public space

Staff estimate about 750 people are sleeping outside in Vancouver. An unsanctioned encampment at Strathcona Park has grown to nearly 400 tents since activists established it in June after being evicted from a Port of Vancouver parking lot near CRAB Park. BC Housing believes about 200 people at Strathcona are currently homeless.

The estimated annual operating costs for a partially supported 40 tent encampment with 24/7 security and daytime staff seven days a week would be upwards of $2.1 million. A fully managed 40 tent encampment with 24/7 security and staffing is expected to cost in excess of $2.6 million per year.

Click to play video 'Strathcona residents rally for safer housing for campers in the nearby park' Strathcona residents rally for safer housing for campers in the nearby park
Strathcona residents rally for safer housing for campers in the nearby park – Sep 29, 2020

Read more: Vancouver’s Strathcona residents rally to demand safe housing for homeless people

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Tom Davidoff, the director of the UBC Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate, said the price of ignoring homelessness could be much higher.

“It is very costly to a city to have the level of amenity in a place like Vancouver deteriorate,” Davidoff told Global News.

“Strathcona produces a lot of real estate value…If it becomes uninhabitable because the park is overrun and dangerous, I suspect there are significant economic costs.”

Even if temporary housing options were approved, city staff noted “the likelihood of decamping Strathcona Park without enforcement of the newly amended Park Control By-law Is limited” as not all of the campers would choose to move.

Click to play video 'Man threatens people with chainsaw in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood' Man threatens people with chainsaw in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood
Man threatens people with chainsaw in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood – Sep 28, 2020

“This type of proposal is only perpetuating the same old, and if anything, is making it worse,” said clinical psychologist and SFU Health Sciences professor Julian Somers.

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Somers said his team has conducted the largest body of research on homelessness, addiction, mental illness, and recovery in Western Canada, and found tent cities go against the evidence of what works to get people off the streets: independent recovery-oriented housing with supports.

“No part of that plan involves putting people into parkades or into parks or other small settings where they would be clustered together on some sort of temporary basis it’s moving in the opposite direction,” Somers told Global News.

City staff noted that the provincial government has to date not supported the concept of a managed encampment, and they have not previously recommended many of the options because experience in other jurisdictions “have shown them to be less effective, more difficult to manage, and more expensive to implement than providing housing.”

The four other options under consideration are leasing or purchasing units in hotels or SROs, temporarily converting city-owned buildings into emergency housing or shelter space, establishing tiny house villages on vacant land, or providing a serviced space for people living in RVs.

The memo states that it would be extremely challenging and not sustainable for the city to take on any of the five options alone given the limited money it could deploy “without displacing permanent housing investments already contemplated in the Capital Plan, service reductions across the City, or the need for significant tax increases.”

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