British Columbia

Vancouver mayor recommends $30M in COVID-19 homeless relief measures

The city plans to lease or purchase housing units in vacant apartments, hotels and single room rentals, and connect social services to help residents adjust.

City plans to lease, purchase housing in vacant apartments, hotels, SROs, connect residents to social services

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart is recommending a $30M emergency fund to help city's homeless get under a roof before winter. (Ben Nelms)

Mayor Kennedy Stewart is recommending a $30 million emergency COVID-19 fund to get homeless people into new housing connected to "wrap-around" social services.

The city plans to lease or purchase housing units in vacant apartments, hotels and single room rentals, and connect social services to help residents adjust.

"We must have the courage and conviction to act quickly and help our most vulnerable neighbours get off the street with safe housing and the wraparound services in place to stabilize their lives," said Stewart in a release Tuesday.

The move comes after an "extensive" staff report suggests leasing or buying housing is the only viable option to quickly address the needs of the homeless.

Stewart says he has long been working with the provincial and federal governments to secure millions of dollars in housing investments for Vancouver, but COVID-19 made this more pressing.

"We have hundreds of neighbours on the street or in parks. They need housing and wrap-around services and our communities need support. The choice before council is to choose to take action, or more delays," said Stewart.

Kennedy says the pandemic has magnified problems for vulnerable people and driven up the risk of being homeless — at the same time emergency shelters and services were forced to cut back services to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Vancouver's most recent homelessness flashpoint is in Strathcona Park, where over 300 tents were erected this summer. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Stewart notes that the pandemic has overlapped with the overdose crisis, creating tandem crises in Vancouver.

The mayor plans to eventually tap into new streams of emergency housing funding from Ottawa along with a provincial promise to deliver 1,500 social housing units in Vancouver.

In September, Stewart introduced a motion for council's consideration putting three shelter options on the table for staff to investigate. The aim was to get the city's homeless population indoors before cold weather hit.

A large tent city that was removed from Oppenheimer Park shifted to a vacant lot near CRAB Park in June. When that encampment was broken up by police shortly after, dozens of homeless people set up in Strathcona Park, drawing a growing outcry from neighbourhood residents for the city to act on the issue.

"No matter the course of action we take, we must all remember that the only way we can respond to people going through the hardest moments imaginable is by being compassionate and generous," said Stewart in a statement in September.

The city has been acquiring new housing units for use as emergency shelters since spring.

COPE Coun. Jean Swanson has long supported this option.

"Winter is coming. [Hotels are] empty. If we put people in them, we'd not only help the people who are homeless, we'd help the hotel owners," she said in a September interview with CBC.

According to data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, only 0.5 per cent of $1.46 billion allocated through the National Housing Co-Investment Fund has gone to affordable housing projects in B.C. between 2018 and February 2020.

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