British Columbia

Concerned about homeless camps? Here's how parties say they'll help people living on the streets

Homeless camps have become an issue from Halifax to Prince George, B.C. Despite the prevalence of homelessness across the country and the fact that some say it's a problem requiring federal attention, Canada's major political parties have said little about the issue during the 2021 election campaign.

Tent cities have sprung up countrywide, but party platforms offer few clues about how to tackle homelessness

Dallas Caillou and his girlfriend, Kay-lee Hall, pose outside their shelter in a homeless camp in Prince George, B.C. An estimated 50 to 75 people live in the camp and the Prince George Native Friendship Centre says 90 per cent of residents are Indigenous. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Kelli Moffat's house in Prince George, British Columbia overlooks an encampment where people without homes have taken up shelter in rows of tents and tarps.

The camp concerns her, and not just because she's noticed a rise in crime in her neighbourhood. She recognizes not everyone in the encampment is responsible, and has mixed feelings about the city's plans to tear it down. Instead, she says, she would like to see more support for the people who live there.

"We really want something done about the homeless situation and the fact that nobody should live like that," she said. "This is definitely a federal and provincial issue. The city can only do so much."

Moffat's not the only one who's worried. These "tent cities" have been set up and torn down in communities from Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto and Halifax, often just to be re-established somewhere else. And despite the prevalence of homelessness across the country, the issue has received little attention on the federal campaign trail.

Dallas Caillou is one of about 50 to 75 people in the encampment, where he lives in a makeshift teepee with a bed, heat and even a TV, though he has no power.

He says the camp gives him and other residents a sense of security. Instead of having to pack up their belongings every day to get off a sidewalk or out of a shelter, they can establish some routine. Volunteers provide food and water, and portable toilets and dumpsters have been set up as well.

"They're friends … community," Caillou said. "I feel safe." 

WATCH | Dallas Caillou provides a tour of his shelter: 

Inside a homeless camp in Prince George, B.C.

13 days ago
2:51
Dallas Caillou gives CBC a tour of his makeshift home inside a homeless encampment in Prince George, B.C. 2:51

Unfortunately, not everyone feels that way.

RCMP say they've recorded a rise in complaints from people living near the camp, and on Aug. 27 a woman living in the encampment was shot. Incidents like that have prompted the city to pursue a court injunction to shut the camp down and pass a bylaw prohibiting the establishment of similar encampments.

Caillou says he wants to have permanent housing, but that hasn't happened. He says if the camp is torn down, he'll have go back to living on the streets.

It's a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break, and the lack of attention to the issue from federal party leaders during the election is disappointing to people like Tim Aubrey, who co-chairs the Ontario Housing First Community of Interest, which advocates for research-based solutions to ending homelessness.

"The focus when it comes to [party platforms] is very much around trying to help first-time homebuyers and deal with the supply problem," he said. "But for chronic homelessness you need more support."

WATCH | Tent city neighbour says homelessness needs federal attention: 

Tent city neighbour wants federal support to end homelessness

13 days ago
0:55
Kelli Moffat has seen a rise in crime since the establishment of a tent city in her Prince George, B.C., neighbourhood. She says the federal and provincial governments need to do more to tackle the issue. 0:55

While housing falls under provincial jurisdiction, Aubrey said you only need to look at health care — which also falls to the provinces — to see how the federal government can take on a leadership role in shaping policy aimed at ending homelessness.

Nick Falvo, a Calgary-based consultant and research associate with Carleton University specializing in homelessness and affordability, said Canada's three major parties make little mention of ending homelessness in their platforms.

"This came as a surprise to me [because] it is something that affects every region of the country," he said. "It's a national issue. I think it requires national leadership."

CBC spoke to candidates for the NDP, Conservative and Liberal parties in Prince George and asked Falvo his thoughts on their approaches to ending homelessness.

NDP: Guaranteed livable income, mental health supports

Falvo said the biggest surprise to him was that the NDP's platform doesn't focus more on ending homelessness. Instead, like the Liberals and Conservatives, he said their focus seems to be on cooling the housing market and helping first-time buyers.

While the party says it would work to end homelessness within a decade, Falvo said the platform provides few details on how it would get there.

However, NDP candidate Audrey McKinnon — a former CBC broadcaster running in the riding of Cariboo-Prince George — said other party policies would help tackle the root causes of homelessness.

WATCH | NDP candidate on universal basic income: 

NDP candidate pitches universal basic income to help end homelessness

13 days ago
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NDP candidate Audrey McKinnon says the key to solving homelessness is to eliminate the root causes of poverty. 1:14

"I'm always going to be an advocate for universal basic income," she said, pointing to the party's position on livable incomes for people with disabilities and seniors.

McKinnon also promoted the party's promise of universal pharmacare and mental health support as ways to help lift people out of poverty leading to homelessness.

Falvo said while it's true policies aimed at ending poverty could have an impact on homelessness, and similar ideas have met with some success in Quebec, he would have liked to see more direct actions within the party platform along with costing.

Conservatives: New funding for addictions treatment

Conservative candidate Todd Doherty also linked the homelessness crisis in his riding to mental health and addiction, and said his party's approach would be to provide more treatment options to people living with those issues.

"We are gripped in an opioid crisis which, let's call it what it is, a national health-care crisis," he said.

Doherty reiterated his party's promise to commit $325 million over three years to create 1,000 new treatment beds and 50 recovery centres across Canada, which he believes will help people in camps transition to permanent housing.

WATCH | Conservative candidate on addictions treatment: 

Conservative platform focuses on addictions treatment to get people off the streets

13 days ago
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Conservative candidate Todd Doherty believes giving people more access to addictions treatment will help reduce homelessness. 1:20

Falvo said that while he agrees addiction treatment needs more funding, it is not a catch-all solution to homelessness.

"If they'd listed that in addition to six or seven other measures, that would have been one thing, but when it's the thing they underline as a policy response … it's a bit surprising." 

Falvo said over the past decade a consensus has emerged that requiring people to be sober before providing shelter or housing is not conducive to getting people off the street, and the Conservative Party's focus on addictions treatment overlooks other factors that could help reduce homelessness.

Liberals: Rapid housing funds

Liberal candidate Garth Frizzell pointed to his party's rapid housing initiative, a program that sees the federal government transfer money to Indigenous governments and municipalities to buy up vacant properties to be transformed into affordable housing.

"That channelled funding directly from the federal government to municipal governments in a way that hadn't been done before."

WATCH | Liberal candidate on rapid-housing funds: 

Liberal candidate says rapid-housing gives cities power to tackle homeless camps

13 days ago
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Liberal candidate Garth Frizzell says a federal program aimed at buying empty buildings and converting them into housing has been a winning formula. 1:05

As a city councillor in Prince George and president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities when the COVID-19 crisis hit, Frizzell was a strong advocate for the program, which has distributed more than $1 billion across the country, with the Liberals committing a further $1.5 billion in their latest budget.

But the program has also faced criticism. The NDP argues it falls short of creating enough new units to address the scope of the homelessness crisis, while the Conservatives say it's too focused on major urban centres.

Frizzell agreed the program needs to be expanded to help more small cities and argued additional funding committed by the Liberals would achieve that.

Falvo said from what he's seen, the program has been popular and the additional funding promised by the Liberals is "nothing to sneeze at."

Still, he noted the program is reduced to a single sentence in the Liberal platform and that more of the party's focus seems to be on appealing to people with the money to buy a home rather than those living in chronic poverty.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca. You can also send encrypted messages using Signal to 250.552.2058.

With files from Belle Puri

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