Unique strategies are needed to address different types of homeless
CityCaucus.com welcomes Sean Bickerton as guest editorialist...
When Tom and I moved back to Vancouver from New York two and half years ago, we landed in a studio apartment at the foot of Howe next to the Granville Street Bridge. It was tiny, but we loved the neighbourhood and walked the seawall every day of the week, come rain, hail or snow.
It's a quiet corner of the city, with one of the best bakeries in town - Tartine; a pre-school; and a social housing complex for the elderly that maintains one of the most beautiful garden beds on the seawall.
The owner of Tartine's, Jo-Ann, is a vibrant, big-spirited woman who bakes the best bread, pies and butter tarts in the city. She lived in our building and always laughed at my cheek, because I could never resist stealing a few luscious, red strawberries out of the heaping bowls she sometimes carried up to her apartment in the elevator. Our neighbour on the right, Maria, an inveterate traveler, was a retired stewardess who worked part time for the cruise lines during the summer months to stretch a fixed income.
Real people, in other words, living real lives and dealing with all of the challenges and puzzles modern life presents. They are literally the salt of this Canadian earth we are lucky enough to live upon - hard-working, kind, reliable, good neighbours.
And so, when I hear Councillor Kerry Jang denouncing my former neighbours and friends in The Georgia Straight as "irresponsible" because "they don't care" about the homeless; when he implies they are reckless and troublesome, I take issue with his remarks - Dr. Jang owes these Vancouverites an apology.
All the moreso because it wasn't the residents of False Creek North that have acted in an 'irresponsible', 'uncaring', 'reckless' or 'troublesome' manner. It was Dr. Jang and Mayor Robertson that acted without consultation, without preparation, and without concern for the people affected by their actions. They seem to think that if people are just swept off the streets and shoved into shelters, their job is done.
But opening shelters is not a plan to end homelessness. People become homeless for a variety of reasons, and to be successful, our plan needs to address underlying causes. As Suzanne Anton explained to me the other day, there are distinct groups of people using the Granville Street shelters for very different reasons. Some are coping with serious alcohol and drug abuse problems, many dealing with mental health challenges. But there are also young people backpacking across the country and the working poor - in one case, a group of quiet, well-behaved, Central American labourers working full-time but staying in shelters to send all of their wages home to their families.
To be successful, different strategies are required for different populations facing unique challenges, yet this entire effort has been thrown together in a slap-dash manner with little thought for the consequences to the neighbourhood or the services required to suppport shelter residents. It is deeply disappointing because in the process the city has let down those most in need.
Ending the misery of homelessness is both a noble and necessary goal. But it will take a concerted, coordinated long-term plan involving mental health treatment, treatment for alchoholics and addicts, public health services, education, job training, job creation, and the strengthening of neighbourhoods, not the weakening of them.
It will also take a leader capable of bringing the city together rather than constantly dividing us through the petty politicization of every issue with a constant refrain of cheap, partisan shots at previous councils and mayors, ad nauseum ...
I like some of the Vision Councillors - I speak highly of a number of them. And I understand how difficult their jobs are. I also salute the Mayor's good intentions to end homelessness.
But there is no excuse for this kind of incompetent, improvised effort when the Mayor is playing with people's lives.
Vancouver native Sean Bickerton is Managing Partner of Kulture Shock Media. He ran in the last civic election for the NPA as a candidate for Vancouver City Council and currently serves on the NPA Board of Directors.