Jean Swanson: Vancouver's focus on home ownership neglects plight of the homeless

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Last week, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson met with Downtown Eastside residents to discuss the community's housing needs and to respond to the tent city established at 58 West Hastings. The meeting ended with a commitment to rezone the city-owned lot for social housing that has 100 per cent welfare pension-rate rents.

While perhaps a step in the right direction, Vancouver-based anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson called the commitment a "little victory," suggesting that there was much more the City and the Province needs to do to address the reality of homelessness across the province.

rabble spoke with Swanson over the phone about the Mayor's commitment and the province's ongoing homelessness crisis.

This interview has been condensed.

 

The housing crisis in B.C. is a complex issue and it seems like there are many opinions on how it should be addressed. What actions do you think are crucial to properly addressing both Vancouver's and the province's needs?

The first thing would be to prioritize the people that are most in need and then three other things come from that.

One, build lots more social housing especially social housing that people on welfare and low incomes can afford. It's important to add that because Vancouver City Council changed the definition of social housing so a lot of it is quite expensive rental housing, like $1,500 - $1,800 a month. We think about 10,000 units of social housing a year are necessary in B.C.

The next one would be rent control that works. Strong rent control or rent freeze based on the unit, not the tenant and ending the one-year leases that allow people to get out of the weak rent control that we have now.

The third thing would be for cities not to [up zone] unless they protect low-income tenants in the area they are upselling. Protect them by ensuring that their rents are going to stay low somehow.

 

You were at Carnegie Community Centre last week when Mayor Gregor Robertson committed to making the 58 West Hastings Lot 100 per cent social housing, is that correct?

Well the key there was that he committed to make it at welfare rate pension rate. That was the key because when the City says social housing all that means is owned by a government or non-profit and 30 per cent of it to be rented at HILs (Housing Income Limits) which is, I think, $965 for a bachelor, which totally excludes all the low-income people in the Downtown Eastside.

So when he committed to welfare pension rates, that was the big concession there, but he still has to get the funding for it so it's not a done deal by any means.

 

That's a great clarification, thank you. Is this enough? Or what other actions would you like to see from the Mayor moving forward? 

What we asked for at that meeting was the demands of the Our Homes Can't Wait campaign which have been endorsed by 10 groups in the Downtown Eastside.

So that's for the City to buy 10 lots and put housing on them -- social housing that people on welfare can afford. So that means the rents would be around $375, maybe $400 if you're a senior. The second thing is a rent freeze which is a provincial responsibility, but we want the City to be calling for it. The third thing was to acquire and improve the SROs until there's good social housing for everybody.

 

We have a provincial election coming up next spring. How would you like to see housing fit in as an election issue?

Well it should be a huge election issue but it's very frustrating to see all the emphasis being put on the "don't have a million" crowd and home ownership. What's really happening is homelessness is going out of sight again.

I just heard the Mayor of Abbotsford on the radio yesterday saying that there's 15 homeless camps in Abbotsford and we had the highest homeless count we've ever had in Vancouver this year. There's the homeless tent city in Victoria, there's homeless people all over the province and homelessness is a huge issue.

We need thousands of units of social housing and the other thing that's really screwing up is the welfare rates. People on welfare and disability get $375 a month [for housing] which isn't enough to rent anything on what they accept as social housing, basically.

Welfare rates have been frozen for almost 10 years and it's getting way harder to get on welfare. They've closed offices, they make you do it by phone, but welfare is so meager that people can't afford phones so because of the hassle, people with dignity just think "I can't handle this" and they would just rather be homeless. Welfare rates have to go up.

Provincially, the issues would be strong rent control, raising welfare rates a lot -- like doubling them at least -- and building thousands of units of social housing.

It would be good to see the NDP come out in favour of some of these things because they haven't. 

 

You mentioned briefly that a lot of the attention is on the "Don't Have a Million" campaign and that the issue of actual homelessness is getting lost in the shuffle. What is needed to draw more attention to the issue of homelessness?

In terms of just reason, the two facts that we always use are homeless people have half the life expectancy of other B.C. residents and it's more expensive to keep people homeless, on the street, than it is to put them in housing.

In terms of action, I think we need more tent cities and we have to make homelessness visible and try to get governments to act by making it visible.

 

Speaking of those tent cities, there has been quite a lot of activism lately to start shedding that light on the province's housing needs. Have there been any moments or stories that you've found particularly inspiring throughout this?

I was hanging out with the folks that were occupying an apartment building in Burnaby when everyone was evicted because it's been rezoned for a condo tower and a lot of the people who had been evicted or who were about to be evicted would come by to support. I found that really inspiring.

There was one woman there, she had two gorgeous children, and had been evicted. She came by and she said "I can't do the occupation because I have children but come over to my house and have a shower." She'd take people over to her house to have a shower and she would wash our clothes and iron them. That was her way of supporting people who were fighting back and I thought that was amazing and inspiring.

The other thing that's inspiring to me is the tent city in Vancouver at 58 West Hastings, that's a tent city that's being run with all kinds of safety protocols. Tents are supposed to be three feet apart and they have harm reduction there and little cans for people to put their cigarette butts in and it's being run by people who use drugs and they're doing a fantastic job. I think that's inspiring.

 

View the Our Homes Can't Wait demands here. Graphic provided by Our Homes Can't Wait.

Alyse Kotyk is a Vancouver-based writer and editor with a passion for social justice and storytelling. She studied English Literature and Global Development at Queen's University and is excited by media that digs deep, asks questions and shares narratives. Alyse was the Editor of Servants Quarters and has written for the Queen's News Centre, Quietly Media and the Vancouver Observer. She was rabble's 2015-16 news intern.

 

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