Opinion: Housing czar defends drug ghettos

Are current methods addressing issues around homelessness?

Housing Minister Rich Coleman was flabbergasted at the angry response to his solution to the Victoria courthouse “tent city,” the latest tarp-covered camp to spring up in southern B.C.

Coleman announced two temporary shelters with three meals a day and medical supports. One is a former nursing home close to the courthouse squat, conveniently located near panhandling and drug dealing spots as well as taxpayer-funded services. The other offers indoor or outdoor tent space at a former youth custody centre, with a dedicated downtown shuttle bus so these “victims” of “homelessness” don’t have to endure B.C.’s most generous transit bus system.

We weren’t consulted, said the indignant spokespeople for those bringing new-looking tents to take advantage of food and other handouts, offered in B.C.’s warmest climate by the province’s most naïve local government.

But this was just a show for the media by our resident professional protesters, some of whom aren’t really “homeless.”

After the reaction, which Coleman described as “bizarre,” the combined 88 housing opportunities are being snapped up. Those on welfare will have to fork over their $375 monthly housing allowance, as the province continues to convert more housing and offer more rent subsidies.

It’s no wonder that southern B.C. is the destination of choice. Coleman said it’s always been a seasonal thing, but this winter has been the highest in a decade, largely due to an exodus of economic migrants from the downturn in Alberta, naturally heading for B.C.’s most desirable real estate.

I asked him about two other homeless hotspots. In Abbotsford, campers have ignored a city deadline to take down structures in a three-year-old camp, after temporary shelter and costly provincial supports were brought on. A courtroom and street confrontation looms with self-styled “drug war survivors” and their Vancouver legal help.

In Maple Ridge, a tent camp sprang up next to the local Salvation Army shelter, with people cycling through the shelter’s 15-day limit, camping and being fed until they could go back in.

Mayor Nicole Read, who has worked in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, said Maple Ridge took on its own outreach, shelter and housing effort because the province’s $1 million-a-year Salvation Army operation isn’t working.

Coleman is not amused. He said he’s had no complaints about Abbotsford’s Salvation Army shelter, and Read is the only one griping. And no mayor is going to tell him how to spend provincial dollars. Maple Ridge now has two shelters with accompanying street drugs, prostitution and crime.

I asked Coleman about the 10-year-study led by Simon Fraser University researcher Julian Somers on the housing, outreach and services in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. This is the heart of B.C.’s “housing first” strategy, where the province has bought and renovated 30 “single room occupancy” buildings, built another dozen and poured in every possible support, including the buyout of high-living executives at the Portland Hotel Society.

The study found that the hardest cases are worse off than ever, based on court, hospital and other service records, while the influx to the notorious Vancouver drug ghetto have tripled in 10 years.

“I haven’t had a chance to go over that report yet, but I disagree with the assumption I’ve heard already, because I walk the Downtown Eastside,” Coleman said. “I don’t know if they do every few weeks to a month, but I’ve been doing it for about nine or 10 years and I can tell you it’s a whole lot better down there.”

The question is whether problems are being solved, or just better hidden from view.

Tom Fletcher is Black Press legislature reporter and columnist. tfletcher@blackpress.ca

 

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