Homeless is homeless, no matter how you label it
The Vancouver Mayor's office is quickly trying to spin the numbers from the recent homeless count, which clearly indicate that homelessness has spiked up a significant 12% since 2008, or approximately 6% per year with no signs of slowing down. A release sent out earlier and quickly posted by Vision-friendly reporters tries to emphasize the number of people within shelters, compared to people who are "street homeless".
Using a third party definition provided by the Parliamentary Research Branch of the Canadian federal government, homelessness is defined as follows:
the term "homeless" exclusively to describe people living on the street or in emergency shelters
As government studies try to be thorough, they allow for some alternate definitions of homelessness as follows:
a "homeless" person is not only someone without a domicile who lives on the street or in a shelter, but can equally be someone without access to shelter meeting the basic criteria considered essential for health and human and social development
A person with no fixed address, stable, safe and healthy housing for the next 60 days, an extremely low income, adversely discriminated against in access to services, with problems of mental health, alcohol and drug abuse or social disorganization, and not a member of any stable group
Nowhere is a distinction made between "sheltered" homeless people and "street" homeless people, as the Mayor and City Manager Penny Ballem have done today. Given that this is the number one issue that Mayor Gregor Robertson campaigned on, and his promise is to rid the city of homelessness by 2015, increasing the homeless roles by about 180 does not represent positive change.
Of course, homelessness is a whipping tool regularly used by critics. For months during his administration Mayor Sam Sullivan was pilloried over issues around housing and homelessness. TheTyee online magazine liked to dish out criticism regularly by attacking Sullivan for his so-called lack of progress on homelessness and housing, even after his administration secured funding for 3800 units of social and supportive housing from Victoria. By comparison, TheTyee's report from today mirrors the message from City Hall, and redirects criticism at the provincial government.
Critics even raised the spectre of homelessness "tripling" by the beginning of the 2010 Olympic Games because so many people would be pushed onto the street by developers. So much for that theory, and the credibility of people like David Eby who promoted it.
While temporary shelters have improved the optics around the issue of homelessness in Vancouver (and undoubtedly have made many people more comfortable during the wet winter months) it does not move us closer to providing the housing and treatment they need. Vision Vancouver's abandonment of the Four Pillars program, coupled with their emphasis on temporary over permanent housing, is a possible cause for this increase in overall homelessness.
It's even more sad when some try to equate hiding homeless away in shelters as solving the "visible" problem of our homeless. This quote from Frances Bula, for example, astounds me:
We’ve forgotten a little what it’s like to be walking past people sleeping under pieces of cardboard or next to their shopping carts or in grubby sleeping bags sheltered from the rain by a small overhang. It’s not a pretty sight and it doesn’t make any of us feel good about our city or ourselves.
By moving someone from a cardboard box to an empty pew or a mat in a warehouse, how are we supposed to "feel good about ourselves?" Are you saying just because we can no longer see the problem that it no longer exists?
While Mayor Robertson pads his resumé by claiming that he brought in provincial funding when he did nothing of the sort, he's yet to make his mark in a substantive way on this file. And if you're expecting homelessness to be reduced to nil by this Mayor within five years, then I've got a bridge you'd might like to buy for cheap.
- post by Mike