British Columbia

Vancouver council approves $30M plan to house homeless people in vacant hotels, apartment buildings

The city will immediately start moving people from the Strathcona Park homeless camp to temporary pandemic shelters as part of an approved amendment to the motion.

Plan will allow city to buy or lease units in vacant hotels, apartment buildings and SROs

Strathcona Park is the site of Vancouver's latest tent city, where hundreds of people without homes erected tents in June after being evicted from Oppenheimer Park and a Port of Vancouver parking lot near CRAB Park earlier this year. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vancouver city council unanimously approved $30 million on Thursday to house people who are homeless in hotels and commercial sites across the city.

The plan will allow the city to buy or lease units in vacant hotels, apartment buildings and single-room occupancy buildings to provide emergency relief for homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Councillors voted unanimously in favour of the motion Thursday night following a meeting that stretched for more than 12 hours and drew 35 speakers.

The city will immediately start moving people from the Strathcona Park homeless camp, also called Camp K.T., to temporary pandemic shelters as part of an approved amendment to the motion.

In addition, council agreed to use two city-owned sites — the 2400 Motel in East Vancouver and Jericho Hostel on the city's West Side — to immediately house unsheltered people.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who brought forward the original motion, thanked city council in a release minutes after the vote went through, and said the plan will get hundreds of people off the street. 

"Our city has been calling for action, and tonight council answered that call," he wrote in a statement. 

"But make no mistake, this is not a silver bullet. We still need far more investments in housing, mental health services, and safe supply from our partners in the provincial and federal governments to truly deliver for our neighbours who need it most."

There are around 750 people sleeping outside in Vancouver, according to estimates presented by city staff. A report said more than a quarter of those people were living in the encampment at Strathcona Park, which was established in June after campers were evicted from Oppenheimer Park and a Port of Vancouver parking lot near CRAB Park. 

Temporary housing not a solution: advocate

Chrissy Brett, camp liaison and matriarch, said the steps approved Thursday won't solve the city's housing crisis.

"The problem with temporary housing is that it just sweeps the problem under the rug for a short period of time only to have it rear its ugly head in three to five years," she said Friday.

"The way that I read [the motion] is more like shelter space, which is not like housing at all — just cubicles, much like work cubicles, that people are supposed to live in."

City staff estimate that more than a quarter of people who are homeless in Vancouver have been living at Strathcona Park. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Brett said people living the camp would be open to moving if proper, permanent alternatives became available.

"If it is actual housing, then absolutely," she said. "There are people who are vulnerable here that could definitely use some housing."

Funding still up in the air

While council agreed Thursday to pursue moving people into the 2400 Motel and Jericho Hostel immediately, implementing other steps outlined in the rubber-stamped motion will depend on whether the city can get funding from a number of sources.

Those sources include federal initiatives like the Rapid Housing Initiative, which has earmarked $1 billion for municipalities to buy hotels and motels to serve at-risk populations in need of housing. It also includes applying to the province for "operating funds and capital funds" — a request that won't be considered, at the earliest, until a new provincial government takes office in several weeks.

Affordable housing is typically not seen as a responsibility of local governments — in 2020, just $29 million of Vancouver's $1.6-billion budget went toward affordable housing initiatives.

But critics of the city's strategy have argued Vancouver should play a stronger role, particularly after shutting down multiple single room occupancy hotels in recent years, displacing hundreds of marginalized residents.

Chrissy Brett pictured in Strathcona Park on July 16. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Katie Lewis, vice-president of the Strathcona Residents' Association, said the group was pleased with municipal council's unanimous vote on Thursday but still believes provincial and federal politicians need to step in to help with further funding.

The group had called on the city to shut down the encampment for health and safety reasons.

"Honestly, I'm feeling pretty good and I think the majority of Strathcona residents are actually feeling quite good. I felt like council actually listened to our concerns," she said.

"But this shouldn't be a city council issue, quite frankly," she added.

City staff were asked in September to report back on five potential options to immediately house unsheltered people in the city. Stewart made his $30-million recommendation on Tuesday after staff concluded the lease or purchase of vacant apartment complexes, commercial hotels and other buildings was the only viable way to quickly address the needs of the homeless.

With files from Joel Ballard, Justin McElroy, Rhianna Schmunk and The Canadian Press

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