British Columbia·Q&A

Federal, provincial aid needed to manage homeless crisis, Vancouver mayor says

Speaking on CBC’s The Early Edition Friday morning, Mayor Kennedy Stewart said that the city has done as much as it can right now to create safe housing and needs help from other levels of government.

'Cities on their own can't do this': Mayor Kennedy Stewart

A person holds a blue bin above their heads on a street.
Tents are pictured being dismantled on East Hastings Street on the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As city staff continue to take down shelters, remove belongings and dismantle a community set up along Hastings Street on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the city's mayor is calling for more support from all levels of government to help find safe, adequate housing for those who are being displaced. 

Speaking with CBC's Gloria Macarenko Friday morning, Mayor Kennedy Stewart said that the city has done as much as it can right now to create safe housing and needs help from other levels of government.

"Cities on their own can't do this," he said. "We're doing our best on the ground ... but we need record levels of investment."

The B.C. Human Rights Commissioner estimates 400 people live in tents along several blocks of East Hastings Street.

Tents are pictured being dismantled on East Hastings in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver on Aug. 9, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The City of Vancouver has deferred questions about where these people are supposed to go to B.C. Housing, the provincial Crown corporation responsible for social housing. 

B.C. Housing says it was given short notice to find space for those forced from their tents on Hastings Street, and there is little housing inventory available. 

"Housing space is tight in Vancouver," B.C. Housing said in an emailed statement.

However, it said it is doing its best to find new space and renovate existing space to open up more space.

CBC has made repeated requests to speak to Housing Minister Murray Rankin, all of which have been declined. 

On Friday morning, the federal government announced it would be doubling the money it's putting toward Canada's Homelessness Strategy, from $2 billion to $4 billion over nine years. 

Stewart spoke more about the decampment on CBC's The Early Edition.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart weighs in on the decampment process on Hastings Street, and what the city and police could have done differently.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is your reaction to the way things unfolded on Tuesday? 

This is an incredibly complex, challenging situation. I think we're trying to do the best we can under very tough circumstances. Although there was the incident at the Carnegie Center with the police, I'm really grateful to the staff and the folks that are in this predicament for doing the best they can to abide by the fire chief's order.

I hope we could all just move forward in a way that's caring for one another as we try to do our best in these tough circumstances. 

A notice from the City of Vancouver said that staff would try to conduct the work with thoughtfulness and care of the residents and their circumstances. Would you categorize what happened as being thoughtful? 

Police operations are not under my control. I'm not going to comment on their strategic direction. My understanding is that was connected to the Carnegie incident, and that's not the general approach that we're using when it comes to removing the structures on Hastings. 

Vancouver police officers arrest multiple people during a melee while the city was dismantling tents on East Hastings in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022.
Multiple people were arrested and displaced as the City of Vancouver dismantled shelters along Hastings Street. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The police are serving a supportive role. So I'd ask you to ask the police about their operations. But what we're trying to do with the City is to make sure that folks have places to put their things, are talked about in a way that is respectful and talk to them in a respectful way, and then work as hard as we can to get them indoors to a safe and secure space, which is proving to be a real challenge. 

B.C. Housing put out a statement saying they can't find the spaces that are necessary on short notice. It's one thing to put their belongings in a box. Where are they going to stay? Where are they going to go?

That has been really the number one focus since I've come in as mayor. Last year alone, we opened over 1,000 units of supportive housing, and we continue to build more. I was communicating with our new housing minister, Murray Rankin, who I know well.

B.C. housing is expediting investments in housing in the area that we think we can have more units online in September. We have some opening now and offers from non-profits, which is showing the generosity of spirit of everybody involved here. It isn't an ideal way to do this, but the fire chief as an independent authority to say, hey, things are not safe, and there's a very high risk of loss of life. 

Tents are pictured being dismantled on a street.
Tents in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver were being dismantled this week. Cities across Canada are trying to come up with a way to respond to homeless encampments. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Why not close the street to traffic and move structures onto the road?

The neighbourhood that we're in has 100-year-old structures on the north and south sides of the streets with very vulnerable people living in them. We have upgraded many of them to keep them fire safe. But I can't even imagine what would happen if the fire department didn't have access if we were to close down Hasting Street. I mean, it would magnify the fire risk in that area. I think that's a terrible idea. What we have to do is abide by our expert advice, which is the fire chief. 

We are experiencing loss of life. People have to realize how serious the overdose situation is. In the last two weeks, we have lost 25 lives to overdoses, most of them in that community. 

Suggestions are welcome. But look, we have to do everything we can to save lives. That's the situation we're in right now on Hastings. We're doing everything we can.

Has the City looked into how other jurisdictions deal with situations like this? 

Yeah, it's called investment in social housing. European cities, 20-30 per cent of their housing stock is government-owned or non-profit operated. Vancouver is a super privatized housing market, with 95 per cent of the housing stock being in private hands. So exactly what the John Horgan government is doing and the Trudeau government is doing is finally spending money on social housing.

So when they provide the money for a thousand new modular units on city land, that is the answer. And with Minister Sheila Malcolmson now providing complex care, wraparound services for the folks who have the most complex mental health and addiction issues, that is the only way forward. 

With files from The Early Edition and Courtney Dickson