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Off the Hook

By Sean Condon

Tuesday October 23, 2007


With a view of the sun setting behind the North Shore Mountains, Frank Vrajopich lies comfortably on his sleeping bag reading a newspaper in the Downtown Eastside’s Crab Park. While Vrajopich has been homeless off-and-on for almost three years, he says sleeping outside is better than living in bug-infested shit hole hotels in the Downtown Eastside.

“You go nuts,” says Vrajopich. “I was getting bit every night. You can’t protect your bed good enough to make it stop. I would have bites all over my legs. I couldn’t sleep.”

While it’s always kinda fucked up to hear someone say they’d rather sleep outdoors than in, on this warm September night it’s hard not to see Vrajopich’s point. The last place Vrajopich lived in for any length was the Burns Block hotel at Hastings and Carrall before being evicted with the rest of the roughly 20 tenants on just an hour’s notice. The Vancouver Fire Department had gone into the building for a routine inspection, but when they found the place to be a tinderbox, they shut it down.

The Burns Block has become a symbol of Vancouver’s housing crisis. Occupied by people with some serious social, mental or drug problems, the city allowed the place to rot for years and only gave the building’s owner a few slap-on-the-wrist warnings. Refusing to enact a bylaw that would have allowed the city to do repairs and then bill the owner, the city moved in one “random” day and kicked everyone out the building – a building which happens to sit on a portion of land that the city is trying to gentrify (the Carrall Street Greenway). The owner gets away with letting his tenants live in shit and squalor and then flips the building for three times what he paid. Compared to the Burns Block, Crab Park has safety, security, stability and cleanliness.

So this is what’s its come down to in Vancouver? Some dude who’s had some bad luck, but has got his shit together (Vrajopich works as a binner) is better off living outside in a park than in some of the last remaining bits of affordable housing that we have in this city. At this rate, in a few years poverty activists are going to have to start pushing the municipal and provincial governments to build better parks for the homeless — perhaps something with a gazebo or some swans? Plus, they could always eat the swans.

But as poverty activists dream about taking Gordon Campbell out for a drink or throwing Sam Sullivan onto a dance floor to get revenge, remarkably little attention or blame has been put on the federal government. Although every other country in the G7 has a national housing strategy of some sort, Canada stands out as the only one that does not. Last month it was announced that last year’s federal surplus rose to $13.8 billion, up from a projected $9.2 billion. Despite the fact that cities across the country are dealing with homeless explosions, not a dime of that extra cash is going into housing.

“We are a huge country geographically and what the feds have said is that [housing] is a regional matter, it’s a local matter, it’s not a federal problem,” says Martha Lewis, executive director of British Columbia’s Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre (TRAC), “which is amazing because the federal government has the money in large enough sums. This is especially shameful because in every other country, it’s the central government that gets into housing. We don’t have any other [countries] that have just dropped this like Canada.”

The federal government’s incredible escape from housing has been a long magic trick that has taken place over the past three decades. While housing was never delegated to either the provinces or the feds in the country’s Constitution (if you needed a house in 1867, you would go fucking build one) the federal government informally accepted the bulk of housing duties and by the early 1990s had actually done a pretty good job by creating 650,000 units of housing units that housed more than 2 million people.

But this model began to deteriorate in the 1980s when Brian Mulroney cut $2 billion in housing. In 1992, Mulroney then tried to pass housing officially off to the provinces in the Charlottetown Accord, but this Constitutional amendment was defeated in a national referendum. However, losing a referendum didn’t actually mean the federal government would listen to the people, and in 1993, Jean Chrétien announced the feds would stop funding any new affordable housing and would leave it to the private market to provide.

“The good news for about two-thirds of Canadians is that the private markets are in fact delivering,” says Michael Shapcott, a researcher and policy advocate for the Toronto-based Wellesley Institute. “The bad news is that for one-third of Canadians, and in particular for about one in five Canadians who are in “housing core need”, private markets aren’t able to offer affordable rents or ownership. Vancouver is probably the best example of a home ownership market that’s gone crazy. Now even having a good job isn’t going to get you into a good home in Vancouver.”

Vancouver now has the wonderfully fucked-up distinction as the most expensive housing market in the country, with the average home now costing $591,722 — up 14.2 per cent from the previous year (yes, it can get higher). It’s not much better for renters with the average one-bedroom apartment in Greater Vancouver costing just under a thousand bucks (that average includes Surrey and PoCo, btw). Add a vacancy rate of just 0.3 per cent and even if you can afford a place in the city, you may not be able to find one. Just when Vancouver’s real estate prices really started getting out of control, in a sign of pure genius, the Campbell government cut welfare access. Suddenly the city’s homeless population doubled from 1,000 to more than 2,000 in just three years. Pivot Legal Society predicts the number will triple by 2010.

But as bad as the situation is in Vancouver, it’s shit awful across the country. The National Housing Initiative estimates there are 150,000 homeless in Canada, but some homeless advocates estimate the number is probably closer to 300,000. Nowhere has homelessness exploded as quickly as in Alberta, where 3,436 people are without home in Calgary and 2,600 in Edmonton. In Ontario, where the homeless took it up the poop shoot from Mike Harris for a decade, there are 9,000 people homeless in Ottawa and anywhere between 20,000 to 30,000 in Toronto.

“It really does underline that we’ve got a cultural attitudinal problem in Canada,” says Gordon Laird, author of ‘Homelessness in a Growth Economy: Canada’s 21st Century Paradox’. “Our self-image of a social democracy is not at all in line with what’s happening on the ground.”

Laird’s comprehensive study for the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership found that since the federal government got out of housing in 1993, it has cost Canadian taxpayers $4.5 to $6 billion a year in social services. The government of British Columbia’s own statistics show the average homeless person costs taxpayers roughly $40,000 a year (for using social, health, police services and emergency shelter). But if the government built housing it would only end up costing taxpayers $15,000 a year (including the cost of the building the homes). Homelessness is actually costing the government more money than if they just build some homes.

Most of the other G7 countries have begun to figure out that this is a retarded recipe. Both the United Kingdom and the United States have put “Housing First” strategies in place — with varying levels of success. While the US has really done a shitty job in its execution (but still better than Canada’s) this summer Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Blair announced his government will build three million new homes by 2020.

But despite the fact that other Western governments are now making housing a top priority, Canada continues to buck the trend. In 1998 Canada amended the National Housing Act, which governs the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), and actually changed its priority from creating affordable housing to providing mortgage insurance. The change has been a New York Style Taco (look it up) to the poor but extremely profitable for the CMHC, which runs an annual profit of more than $1 billion and has accumulated profits of close to $5 billion. But because of the change to the Act, this surplus can’t even be reinvested into affordable housing. Proceed vomiting.

Housing and homelessness problems festered in Canada until 2005 when the federal New Democrat Party (NDP) agreed to prop up the minority Liberal government’s budget if it canceled corporate tax cuts and put $1.6 billion into affordable housing. The deal didn’t fully go through before the 2006 election and when Harper won, he tried to cancel the deal. Luckily, most of the funding had been pushed through and $1.4 billion ended up going to affordable housing across the country. But since then, the Conservatives have done dick all address the problem.

Aside from offering a $200 million a year tax break to developers to build affordable housing, the Conservatives and Harper extended the Homeless Partnering Strategy for another two years ($270 million per year) and kept the funding in the Affordable Housing Initiative at $1 billion a year. But the problem is that this simply maintains funding at the same levels that existed in the early ‘90s, even though the problem is now almost 10 times worst.

“We have had some limited funding for homelessness initiatives, but we’re not seeing any commitment from the Conservative government even towards the Olympic commitment that talked about building 3,200 units of housing [in Vancouver by 2010],” says NDP Vancouver East MP Libby Davies. “But it’s very hard to convince them it’s a pressing matter, which just floors me because if you don’t have enough housing for people you’re creating so many other problems and issues. Now we’re approaching a real crises in this city especially as we approach the Olympics.”

An interview request with the minister in charge of housing, Monte Solberg was not returned and his press assistant sent a short message stating the government’s achievements, which were actually just the programs started by other levels of government. Housing and homelessness has become a national emergency. There are so many social and economical reasons to build affordable housing that it has the potential to finally become a defining election issue in every class of riding. If the Conservative government does not initiate some housing strategy expect Vancouver and Canada’s housing problem to get drastically worse. This will cause more suffering for the people who will be out on the street and will also cost taxpayers millions more in dollars. For people like Frank Vragopich, they will continue to sleep outside until some proper, affordable and decent housing is finally built.

“I want to live in government housing and not just another shithole with bed bugs,” says Vragopich. “It’s a joke right now. The federal government has a billion-dollar surplus and I’m sure they can spend a small amount on housing. It wouldn’t hurt. It’s bullshit.”