Despite ongoing purchase and lease of hotels and motels around B.C., added to modular and other supportive housing projects, provincial officials estimate that the number of people living on streets and in tent camps is continuing to rise.
The B.C. NDP government has carried on an aggressive program driven for 15 years by former B.C. Liberal minister Rich Coleman, acquiring single-room occupancy hotels and adding food services and medical supports. Begun in Vancouver’s downtown east side, the program has extended to communities across B.C. That accelerated with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced closure of shelter and drop-in facilities and led to a new surge in tent camps.
Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister Shane Simpson provided an overview of the expanding program in debate on his ministry’s $3.6 billion budget after the B.C. legislature’s pandemic-interrupted session resumed in late June. Simpson said the third year of the province-wide homeless count has been hampered by COVID-19 restrictions, but preliminary results show numbers rising as they did in 2019.
Simpson cautioned that homeless counts are a single-day snapshot gathered by local communities, and many people “living rough” either don’t want to be counted or are part of a long-running protest camp movement demanding government action.
“The encampments around the province — in our best estimate, there probably are about 40 locations around the province, with maybe as many as 1,000 to 1,200 people in those locations,” Simpson said June 25. “The numbers move. What we’re not certain about, of course, is the numbers of people where that would be people who are in significant need of housing and people who are there for activist purposes as well.”
B.C. Liberal critic Joan Isaacs questioned Simpson about the latest government purchases of hotels in Victoria and Vancouver, sparked by new tent camps that spread quickly this spring. On April 25, the province issued a public health order to clear growing camps at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue in Victoria, and Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver.
B.C. Housing took over the Comfort Inn in Victoria and hotels in Vancouver including the American and Howard Johnson, the latter with 110 rooms bought for $55 million.
“Does the minister believe that the $500,000 per room — that’s what it turned out to be for Howard Johnson — is an efficient use of taxpayer dollars?” Isaacs asked.
Simpson didn’t answer directly, noting that the real estate program is run by B.C. Housing and is a project of multiple ministries, including housing and the health ministry, which pays for operating costs.
He estimated that 90 per cent of people in supportive housing are dealing with addiction to alcohol or other drugs, and a similar majority have mental health or brain injury issues.
The NDP program began in 2017 with provision of modular housing for communities such as Nanaimo where persistent tent camps with “wraparound services” including meals, primary health care and at four locations, supervised drug consumption sites.
“All of the facilities currently have the ability to support, through the health authorities and others, overdose prevention and services,” Simpson said. “Safe [drug] supply is available and being ramped up.”