Empty promises, failed strategy – city hall’s homelessness legacy

Of all his misspeaks – and there are not enough pages in the paper or elements on the home page to tabulate them – the cruellest one was the mayor’s conceit as he assumed power in 2008 that he would end street homelessness by 2015.

The indulgence at others’ expense was the product of an innate hubris – of a poll-reader pretending to be a reformer – and it led his administration to overreach and overpromise.

As the results demonstrate, his penchant for extraterritoriality belongs in another arena than the granular governance of a city. Still, it speaks as: why bore oneself with keeping the streets clean when there is a planet to rescue? Thus, last week’s horrible homelessness count in our region – a preliminary figure of 3,605 in Metro Vancouver, certainly an underestimate, and a 30% increase in three years.

The city’s numbers are tragic: 2,138, a steadily growing number from 1,364 in 2005, 1,576 in 2008, 1,581 in 2011, 1,803 in 2014 and the city’s own count of 1,847 in 2016. In the face of this rising count, the city held fast to its spiteful view that, by golly, it would lick the problem.

The historical evidence about ambitious municipal undertakings is that any large project requires partners, particularly senior levels of government to deliver senior levels of financing and frameworks. But collaboration and dialogue are alien to the culture of this city hall and this ruling party.

The commitment to end street homelessness revictimized and retraumatized those most vulnerable in our community, those with neither the economic means nor the political privilege to be seen, heard or understood.

It begs a question: what kind of city government further diminishes the dignity of its most aggrieved?

Rather than apologize and accept that the go-it-alone quest was delusional, the mayor’s recent political pivot has been to call on others to step up.

As if to add insult to injury, last week city council examined the local area plan for the Downtown Eastside.

Only a couple of weeks earlier, the Carnegie Community Action Project had produced an indictment on civic – and, to be fair, provincial and federal – ineffectiveness on the chronic conditions in the district.

No matter. The city didn’t bother to use its findings as context for a discussion or reach out to the activists in the area to examine the local plan or its effectiveness. Order of Canada recipient Jean Swanson, most prominent among them, was lucky she looked at the council agenda in advance to know the three-year review was taking place – but then was rejected in her bid to appear. Nice.

Of the 77 housing projects in the “action” plan, five have been completed. Some action.

The life expectancy in the district is nearly eight years lower than in the rest of the city, but even that might be generous – the city defines the planning area as extending far more east and west and south than what most might. Even with this generous boundary, unemployment is double the Vancouver rate, income is about one-half the city median, and the low-income rate is more than double the city’s. Moreover, of the housing units approved in the last three years, only about one-third are social housing.

Remember that luscious photo opportunity with the mayor last year, when he signed a pledge and personally assured Downtown Eastside activists that a West Hastings project would be fully social housing? A year later, Swanson reports only half of the units will be. At least this promise didn’t take so long to break.

I could go on, but the lamentable and evident truth is that what poses as a strategy is a sham.  The district needs leadership with credibility among governments and the support of the housing sector and others in the neighbourhood. We need to understand, perhaps with an independent auditor, how more than $1 million each day is poured into the district – but by no means stays there – as purported support.

The problems have to be prescribed not entirely on the basis of their symptoms but on the ailments themselves. To do that, though, the incumbents have to recognize they are no longer part of a solution but part of the problem itself. 

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.