British Columbia

As pandemic rolls on, cities call for permanent solutions to help citizens unable to cope

Universal basic income, affordable housing, more support for the mentally ill, among the recommendations

Posted: September 12, 2020

Camps created by homeless people have grown during the pandemic. (Maggie McPherson/CBC)

Municipalities in B.C. and across Canada are calling on provincial and federal governments to address homelessness and access to food during the pandemic and beyond. 

Local governments and social service organizations say the pandemic has exacerbated long-standing social issues that need immediate and long-term solutions. 

In late July, Metro Vancouver's COVID-19 Task Force sent a letter to B.C. Housing Minister Selina Robinson that recently became public when it was presented to the district's housing committee. 

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"The pandemic has made it a lot clearer to all of us how ... homeless populations or the more marginalized populations are the first ones to suffer," said Sav Dhaliwal, a Burnaby councillor and Metro Vancouver's board chair.

In the letter, the task force commends the province for its quick response to provide emergency housing, rent relief and community self-isolation sites during the pandemic. But the letter says the task force wants to see "significant and meaningful" policy changes to ensure fair distribution of housing and food in the long term. 

9 policy recommendations

The task force is calling on the province to implement nine policy changes, which include providing a universal basic income, increasing the supply of affordable housing, and expanding access to mental health and addiction support. 

Dhaliwal says the board recognizes that homelessness and access to food are difficult problems, but the pandemic has brought these issues to the forefront — and it has shown that governments can come together to tackle major obstacles when they're a priority.

Vancouver's Strathcona Park is one of several homeless camps that have popped up in the city since the pandemic began. Metro Vancouver says the province needs to do more to ensure long-standing protections are in place for the region's most vulnerable. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

As a relatively progressive and wealthy nation, Dhaliwal says, Canada should be able to shore up resources to ensure all its citizens have access to basic necessities, just as it has with other social programs like education and health care. 

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"There's a huge gap in income now and that has been increasing over the last four decades, and that needs to be corrected," he said. "It's not that there's not enough money around." 

The Housing Ministry says it received Metro Vancouver's letter and the province intends to respond soon. 

'It's really serious'

Jeremy Hunka, spokesperson for the Union Gospel Mission, says demand for services has been high for years but has increased exponentially as the pandemic has progressed.

Hunka says more than 80 people were turned away at the mission's emergency shelter last month, compared to just three people at the same time last year. Demand for family food hampers has increased four-fold, he says.

"We basically need every person to realize that this is a problem that will continue to get worse unless everybody makes it a priority," Hunka said. "It's really serious."

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Hunka says the pandemic has made homelessness and poverty more visible as an increasing number of people are forced onto the street.

He points out that multiple studies have shown that government investment in basic needs like food, housing and mental health helps mitigate more expensive costs like policing and hospital stays when those needs aren't met. 

"It's better for everybody when we take care of the most vulnerable," he said. 

Call to repurpose buildings

It's not just Metro Vancouver calling on higher levels of government to invest in efforts to resolve enduring social problems.

On Thursday, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities proposed that the federal government partner with cities to invest in affordable housing.

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The proposal calls for Ottawa to take advantage of buildings like hotels and commercial spaces that are for sale because of the pandemic and repurpose them into permanent, non-profit housing.  

Paul's Motor Inn welcomed travellers for almost five decades in Victoria. It was recently sold to the B.C. government to create temporary and permanent housing solutions for those in need in the provincial capital. (Madeline Green/CBC)

The federation says cities have been leasing motels and arenas to provide short-term solutions to the housing crisis, but more permanent solutions are needed. 

It also wants the feds to buy existing cheap rental buildings that are for sale so they're not bought by investors who would likely raise rents. 

"Acquiring and retrofitting existing buildings is much faster and cheaper than building new affordable housing," the federation said in a written statement.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryse Zeidler
@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.