The Great Shell Game: 230 shelter beds lost in the void of austerity

Vancouver has a long history of playing shell games with homeless shelters. Shelter residents have created the term “shelter shuffling” to communicate the harsh reality of being constantly displaced between shelters, either due to arbitrary time-limits placed on residents or to the government’s arbitrary closure of entire shelters.

In Vancouver few people understand that shelter residents have no rights and can be arbitrarily evicted with no right of appeal nor the possibility of an independent hearing process under Provincial law. The length and conditions of a shelter resident’s stay are entirely dependent on the unaccountable decisions of shelter providers. Although shelter providers are obliged by guidelines to clearly communicate the rules to the residents, this is rarely if ever the case.

This precarious existence of shelter residents has been mirrored by the uncertain existence of the shelters themselves, increasingly put on the austerity chopping block of provincial and city governments. These two aspects of the homeless shelter system — lack of rights and lack of a stable and adequate number of shelters — are intimately connected. This point has recently been voiced by the DNC Shelter Committee (Downtown Eastside Neighborhood Council), whose members have written the Shelter Bill of Rights.

According to Roland Clark, an organizer with the committee, “shelter closures are connected to the lack of rights for shelter residents, since shelter residents with secured rights would be able to organize to keep the shelters open.” There have been moments of successful fightback, like when the residents of Central Shelter reversed the provincial government’s planned closure of the building. But in most cases organizing has been difficult, resulting in eviction, burnout or arrest. The First United shelter is a case in point, where hundreds of residents have been turned away and arbitrarily evicted over the course of the past year.

The Disappearance of 230 shelter spaces

In preparation for the then-looming funding cut on July 31st, 2012, BC Housing ordered the First United Shelter to gradually reduce its capacity. Residents that had not stayed there continually since February were turned away despite space inside the shelter, and with all other shelters full to capacity throughout the city. Night after night, regardless of weather, people were turned away from the shelter, and by early August BC Housing had successfully eliminated more than 165 shelter spaces in the DTES.

The previously 230+ capacity shelter was down to 65 residents, without causing any public uproar. By contrast, if 165 condo units had been demolished without replacement there would have been a public moral outrage, not to mention the fact that condo residents have basic rights and the right to appeal decisions about their housing.

First United was rightly criticized for being unsafe for women and too crowded. Yet the elimination of shelter beds address neither issue. By pushing people directly onto the streets it makes the situation worse. As First United gradually removed its beds and with the HEAT shelters closing in April, no new shelter provisions were made and many previous residents of First United were left with nowhere to go. The loss of 165 shelter spaces in the DTES was added to the 73 spaces already removed as result of the permanent closure of three HEAT shelters (Cardero, Fraser, Kits) in the winter of 2011/2012. To make matters worse, throughout this period all other shelters were consistently full and have remained full to this day.

According to statistics from the Carnegie Outreach Program, housing arrangements were made for 234 First United shelter residents between June 2011 and May 2012. Yet, homelessness statistics strongly indicate that the need and demand for shelter beds during the same period remained undiminished. Street homelessness doubled from 154 in 2011 to 306 in 2012 as number of sheltered homeless decreased by 131.

The homelessness count is predicted to dramatically increase as the buildings of the “At Home/Chez Soi” project — which includes the Bosman Hotel as well as scattered sites throughout the city — close their doors in 2013. The Dunsmuir Hotel is also scheduled to close the coming year. These projects together constitute a loss of over 400 welfare-rate units. With no city-wide strategy to counter renovictions, real-estate speculation and gentrification, homelessness numbers will inevitably remain high and rising unless social housing is built en masse.[1]

In early July, BC Housing announced extended but reduced funding for First United. The new funding came in the form of a lump sum grant of $1 million, enough to run the shelter for another 12 months but at a reduced capacity of 65 beds. The press release failed to mention that the revised funding entailed the eviction of 165 people. Instead, it celebrated the BC Liberals’ failed homelessness and housing strategy and its mythical 14 sites (promised housing that will be a decade late when and if it is finally completed, funded by the demolition of 600 people’s homes at Little Mountain).

In fact, by eliminating more than 238 (165+73) shelter spaces in one year without any replacement, the province and city are squarely contradicting the city’s own mandate as set out in their Housing and Homelessness Strategy: “to ensure shelter capacity to meet the needs of street homeless.” This unprecedented loss of shelter beds came in a traditionally timely manner: after the completion of the annual homelessness count.

State of emergency and the emergency shelters

The shelter shell game exposes that at the foundation of the housing crises lies a blatant lack of recognition of the rights of poor and homeless people. According to organizer Roland Clark, “These people have no legal way to organize for their personal rights, let alone to do the larger task of defending the shelters against government austerity measures. Because if they did that they’d be evicted.”

Under this state of emergency, shelter residents are considered to have the same rights as “licensees.” Similar to a licensed plumber or building contractor, they are only allowed on private property at the benevolent will of the shelter provider and ultimately of the government. The moment this benevolence ceases, regardless of cause, the shelter resident becomes a trespasser legally removable by force.[2]

October 21st will mark the one-year anniversary of the illegal eviction of a woman at the Yukon Shelter. The woman had refused to let the staff manage her Prednisone, which is a recommended but not compulsory condition for staying at the shelter. The woman was served an eviction notice soon after, and protests by other residents and CCAP advocate Wendy Pedersen were met by police force. Far from being an exception, this eviction is standard procedure at many shelters, in which the exception has become the norm.

Amidst an illogical and irrational shelter system, the only consistent logic is the logic of emergency, where residents basic rights and freedoms are indefinitely suspended. It comes as no surprise then that all shelters are referred to as “emergency shelters”.

Defend the right to organize

At a time of austerity the provincial and local governments claim that there is no money for shelter or housing. The same week that BC Housing announced the extended but reduced funding for First United, the city provided a $35 million subsidy for Aquilini Investment Group in their development at 800 Griffiths Way. The project plans to building hundreds of “affordable” rental units, which means housing at a rental rate of more than $2,000 per month. Ironically, the city deemed the project to be adequately affordable under its Housing and Homelessness Strategy. The approval proves once again that the housing crisis persists not because of a lack of money but a blatant lack of political will and complete disregard of the poor and homeless.

In a meeting with Dominic Flanagan (Executive Director of BC Housing Supportive Housing & Programs) in March 2012, DNC Shelter Committee members were told that First United was the first shelter to be phased out in the long-term plan to “phase out all emergency shelters.” Now it is more urgent than ever to revolt against the government with the simple demands: housing and full tenancy rights for all human beings — defend the right to organize.

[1] Supportive Housing tenants are not fully covered by the residential tenancy act. As such, supportive housing translates many of the problems of emergency shelters into permanent living conditions, including lack of tenancy rights, accountability and transparency.

[2] The legal status of shelter residents as licensees is based on research by the DNC Shelter Committee members Roland C. and Jacek L.