Politicians play politics with homeless shelters, people freeze on the streets


This winter, Vancouver has already been hit by record snowfalls and low temperatures. Despite warnings of a coldsnap beginning Nov 18 2010, the City did not have any preparations made for those in need of shelter. On Nov 19th, the City issued a press release entitled, “City prepares for cold, snowy winter ahead,” which made no mention of any preparations for shelters, as noted by one blogger.

The truth is that there was a severe shortage of shelters because the City and the Province had shut down more than half of Vancouver’s low-barrier shelters in April 2010, with no plans for new ones. As a result, by Nov 21st 2010, existing shelters were overflowing, and the situation deteriorated as temperatures dropped below -5 degrees Celsius in the following days.

Instead of pointing out the recent history of shelter closures, the media uncritically reported on stories of City councilors and shelter providers congratulating themselves for being more prepared than ever. The daily 24hours reported: “Seeing every community organization at the ready and having room to spare is great news for those who remember how scattered the response was a few years ago.”

But behind the scenes, the City and Province scrambled to come up with a plan. On Nov 23rd, the coldest night of the year, they announced funding for four shelters to be opened at later dates at locations to-be-determined – half of those shelters still have not opened. Rather than acknowledging the mistake of having closed down needed shelters in the spring with no plan for the winter, government officials turned the situation completely upside down, congratulating themselves for adding so-called “new” shelters.

Housing Minister Coleman told the Globe & Mail: “I looked at it going in to the weekend. I looked at the count and the really cold weekend…I just really felt like I needed to get people off the street.” City politics blogger Frances Bula also agreed to turn reality upside down, offering her congratulations: “I have to say, it’s cheering to see the way the city and province, who have their tensions and conflicts, managing to do the right thing out of all this. Penny Ballem and the mayor, whatever their other faults, have really stuck to their guns on this and pushed hard. And the minister, well, he huffs and puffs but ends up doing the right thing. Those 160 people who get to sleep inside the rest of the winter are the winners. So are we.”

The first of the “new” low-barrier shelters was opened at 667 East Broadway on Nov 25. As of today (Dec 4th), only a second “new” shelter has been opened, at 1442 Howe St. But both locations were used as shelters until they were shut down in April.

History of Re-announcing Shelters

This is not the first time that the City and Province have shut down needed shelters only to reannounce their re-opening as a commitment to so-called “new” shelters.

Soon after being elected on a mandate to end homelessness, Gregor Robertson announced on Dec 9 2008 the opening of five shelters: 1) Howe Street Shelter, 2) Granville St. Shelter, 3) First United Church, 4) Central Shelter, and 5) New Fountain Shelter. These were stop-gap measures until real housing came on line.

The Howe St. and Granville St. shelters (the only two not in or adjacent the DTES) were closed in the summer of 2009. With the Olympics approaching, these two were reopened in Jan 1010, along with one in the West End and one at Fraser and Broadway. All seven were operating during the Olympics.

After the Olympics, the Province threatened to pull the plug on all seven shelters. In April 2010, the City and the Province decided to shut down 4 of the 7 shelters, and spun the continuing funding for the remaining three shelters as “new” funding, attempting to create the impression that these were new measures to combate homelessness. The media reported this uncritically. There were no news articles in the mainstream or independent press entitled anything like: “City and Province shut down more than half of Vancouver’s low-barrier shelters.” Nonetheless, people in the shelters organized a petition to oppose the shelter closures, announcing a squat at the Central Shelter to protest the closures.

To preempt a coordinated squat, the City and the Province decided to keep Central open while shutting down the others in a staggered manner between April 23rd and 28th 2010.

Real Action on Housing

Both housing advocates and government officials insist that shelters do not constitute adequate housing, although for difference reasons. Housing advocates, such as Wendy Pederson, are concerned about the terrible conditions in the shelters, while officials like Minister Coleman do not want to spend money on shelters. Coleman’s Ministry has reiterated that the shelters are temporary until the 14 supportive housing sites are built, but has been persistently reluctant to fund shelters even though not a single one of the 14 sites have been built.

Despite the temporary nature of these emergency shelters, it is necessary to hold governments accountable for their inadequate and incompetent shelter program.

The Mainlander will continue to investigate the causes of Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis, including state-facilitated gentrification and a profound lack of social housing.