City Hall lawn amongst City of Vancouver's list of sites considered for homeless camps

Oct 5 2020, 1:22 pm

In an internal memo late last week, City of Vancouver staff outlined a number of quick options to provide emergency shelter for Vancouver’s homeless population.

This is in response to city council’s approved September 14 motion calling for city staff to explore new solutions to house the homeless population, particularly those in and around the Strathcona Park encampment, which has grown to about 400 tents with an estimated 200 people.

One of the options entails creating new encampments at other locations under a “Temporary Disaster Relief Shelter” framework, with each encampment no larger than 40 people in size.

The locations floated in the memo include City Hall’s north lawn and Helena Gutteridge Plaza (former site of City Hall’s East Building), as well as the Gastown parkade at 107 East Cordova, the Chinatown parkade at 180 Keefer Street, the ground level parking lot next to SkyTrain’s Olympic Village Station, the vacant site at 987 East Cordova Street, the site of the urban farm at 1500 Main Street (just south of the modular housing building on Terminal Avenue), and under the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts near Quebec Street.

The largest of these encampments sites would be the six-level Chinatown parkade and five-level Gastown parkade, with each parkade level conceivably accommodating one 40-person encampment.

City staff note they consulted with the “leadership” of the current encampment at Strathcona Park, who have stated their preference for up to six encampments, each with various support environments including a “sober/family encampment” and a “low-barrier encampment” for people with mental health and addiction issues.

Another option is the establishment of temporary tiny house villages (THV) on many of the same sites considered for encampments.

A 100-sq-ft, shed-like THV structure would not have any heat, power or water, with shared bathrooms and kitchens provided separately within the village. Alternatively, the sheds can be larger with a floor area of 200 sq. ft. to include self-contained units with their own bathroom and cooking facilities. For example, about 25 tiny homes could be squeezed into the 20,000-sq-ft area of the City Hall lawn.

New RV parks at some of the aforementioned locations provide a segment of low-income individuals with shelter, but for some it is the final step before homelessness. The city’s 2020 homeless count found 34 respondents who were sleeping in vehicles, while the parking enforcement team reported 87 unique RV clusters over the last month and a half.

City staff emphasize in the memo that none of these options have been deemed as good ideas, given their negative impacts of prolonging homelessness, and that these lists have been compiled only because of city council’s direction.

“Staff have not previously recommended many of the options contemplated in this memo because experience in other jurisdictions have shown them to be less effective, more difficult to manage, and more expensive to implement than providing housing,” reads the memo.

“Further, the experiences of other jurisdictions have demonstrated that often well-intended short-term or interim solutions such as managed encampments generally become permanent encampments, effectively accepting rough sleeping or homelessness as part of the jurisdiction’s housing continuum.”

The memo also provided the results of a recent survey that indicated 17% of those surveyed had previously stayed at Strathcona Park but left because of “safety, theft or behaviour issues, most often described as chaos.” Nearly half (46%) said they would not stay in a managed encampment under any circumstance, as the overwhelmingly reason was “the chaotic environment they felt was inherent with this environment.”

Over half (55%) surveyed would consider staying in a managed encampment, but 54% also said they have personal safety concerns, 48% believe there should be a “check-in” procedure, and 39% noted they would stay only with supports such as security, food, and showers.

Other shelter options outlined by city staff go as far as temporarily converting city-owned buildings into emergency housing or shelter space, such as the warehouse building at 875 Terminal Avenue, the Kingsway Continental Pub at 3484 Kingsway, and the 2400 Motel at 2400 Kingsway. Each of these locations would have a capacity for between 20 and 60 beds.

City staff also suggested expanding the status quo measure of leasing or acquiring housing, such as low-end hotels and single-room occupancy residences. But this is usually an initiative led and funded by the federal and provincial governments, as it would be highly cost prohibitive for the municipal government to tackle this on its own.

Acquiring hotel properties with 200 units, for instance, could cost as much as $150 million, based on the market price of $750,000 per suite. This does not include the annual operating cost of up to $7.5 million or about $37,500 per suite.

The purchase of a privately-developed market rental housing building under Rental 100 could cost up to $54 million for 90 units, plus an annual operating cost of $3.4 million.

“It would be extremely challenging and not sustainable for the City of Vancouver to absorb these capital and operating costs within the Capital and Operating budgets without displacing other permanent housing investment contemplated in the Capital Plan, reducing other services across the City, or increasing property taxes significantly,” stated city staff emphatically.

“It is important to note that in order to deliver housing for individuals experiencing homelessness, all of the capital investments outlined below require a commensurate commitment of operating funds to secure affordability and ensure adequate support services.”

City council is expected to use the findings made in the memo for further policy directives.

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