Are people living in shelters considered just as homeless as those living on the street?
Hundreds of volunteers have been out on Vancouver’s streets and in back lanes over the last 24 hours conducting a count of the city's homeless population. Front and centre in the media scrum yesterday was Mayor Gregor Robertson, who kindly provided the media with his anecdotal assessment of what the results will look like. One has to ask why he's even bothering to wait for the official tally, when he seems to already know the outcome?
According to Robertson, he’s winning the battle to end homelessness because a few volunteers conducting the homeless survey told him they saw fewer people sleeping on the streets. He may well be right, but seeing fewer people on the streets doesn’t mean you’re ending homelessness. It just means the homeless have moved indoors – but they're still homeless. In fact, when Vision was in opposition, they regularly criticized what they called “quick fixes” such as pouring money into temporary housing, as it did nothing to solve homelessness. They also would cite study after study which claimed there were thousands of unaccounted homeless people who never show up on the books because they are simply "couch surfing".
In the past, poverty activists would regularly criticize previous centre-right NPA governments at the mere mention they were considering putting people into shelters. Now that Vancouver has a left-leaning government, most of those Vision-friendly critics have all but lost their voice. There is nary a peep about how keeping people in shelters and reducing the visible homeless population may actually work against their cause by easing the pressure on senior levels of government. The only exception to this is Wendy Pederson and her hard core crew of activists who seem to dislike whichever government is in power.
There are two aspects of the current homeless count that concern me. First, I find it curious the Mayor chose to conduct the survey just after the Olympics Games while funding for temporary shelters remains in place. Robertson knows full well that it would be much riskier (and likely more accurate) to conduct the survey after the funding for the HEAT shelters runs out at the end of next month. Of course funding for those shelters may continue past April, but at this point there is no firm commitment.
That said, if Robertson really wanted a true picture regarding how the City is managing the battle to eliminate homelessness, perhaps he could have waited a month or two to get the real numbers. Unfortunately, that information may not lend itself to making it into the 2011 campaign brochures.
Secondly, I am surprised that the homeless count only involves Vancouver while the rest of the region is not participating. In the past, the survey has been coordinated on a region-wide basis, in order to provide the best analysis possible as to how we’re doing on the homelessness front.
I have yet to obtain a clear response as to why Vancouver decided to forge ahead with their survey, as opposed to taking a more regional approach. This only helps to fuel speculation that Robertson is rushing ahead to ensure it's conducted for the most political benefit to him.
I do think shelters are part of the strategy of solving homelessness, but the Mayor must be careful as to how he positions the results. Too much crowing about how there are fewer “visible” homeless may well result in some folks pulling back on the throttle. His comments may also serve to dampen the public's interest in investing their tax dollars into more costly long-term solutions.
I trust the overall homeless count won't overly focus on "visible" versus "sheltered" homeless. I think this would be a big mistake. That's because at the end of the day, if you're sleeping on a mat in your local church basement, or on the street, you're still homeless.
In partnership with the previous NPA council, Minister Rich Coleman thankfully announced a significant number of measures to help address the long-term problem of homelessness in Vancouver. It’s hard to overlook all the single room occupancy hotels the Province purchased between 2006-2008 as well as the historic commitment to build 3,500 more units of social and supportive housing in Vancouver. This was a great first step in what Coleman has billed as a province-wide strategy to address the problem.
Although Robertson’s pre-occupation with short term solutions in the form of temporary shelters is laudable, it must be accompanied by a larger plan to secure additional investments in long-term solutions, not just the short term solutions that have happened under his watch. Otherwise, once we get people off the streets and into church basements, there may simply end up being no other place for them to go.
What do you think? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
- post by Daniel