Spike in homelessness numbers show Vancouver needs a better vision

Homeless man begging on the streets of Vancouver. | Photo by Mohammadali F.

Homeless man begging on the streets of Vancouver. | Photo by Mohammadali F.

We’re just over six months from municipal elections in BC, so it’s time to pivot this column’s focus toward city politics.

Here in Vancouver, Mayor Gregor Robertson looks to be headed for a three-peat in November. Count me out of the victory party. There are serious problems in this city, namely gaping inequality and a crisis of affordability, that Robertson and Vision Vancouver have proven unable or unwilling to adequately address.

Let’s start with this most visible manifestation of Vancouver’s woes, homelessness. Robertson has won two straight elections, in 2008 and 2011, by emphasizing his promise to end homelessness in the city by 2015. Actually, his initial campaign rhetoric was softened into a pledge to eliminate ‘street homelessness,’ a definition which excludes people living in shelters.But of course a shelter is not a home, far from it.

Nevertheless, Vision Vancouver has in many years been able to point to decreasing homelessness numbers in the city. Until this year, that is. The annual homeless count revealed a near-doubling of the number of people sleeping on the streets since last year – from 273 to 538. The 2014 figure is more than triple the last Metro Vancouver count, in 2011, which found only 154 ‘street homeless’ in Vancouver.

For Robertson this is, well, awkward. When BC Business asked him last year to name his greatest achievement in office, he answered, “Helping most of Vancouver’s homeless people move in off the street since 2008.”

Even before the new homeless numbers were public, the blame game was underway. Robertson, during a telephone Town Hall, implied that the provincial government was to blame for inadequate movement on social housing. BC Housing Minister Rich Coleman fired back, “I’ve never heard a negative word from Gregor to my face…”

Robertson and Vision Vancouver sent out an email message the day the new homeless numbers came out: “It’s a frustrating setback. But I’m more committed than ever to making sure no one has to sleep outside at night.”

I was a little surprised to receive the email, since I’m not a member of, or donor to, Vision Vancouver. So I assume it was sent to a wide list of people, compiled from other sources.

Two days later, I received a follow up email from the mayor, subject line, ‘Thanks for standing with us’:

“You responded. You sent in messages of encouragement, about how important that it is that we keep helping people who are homeless, and make the opening of shelters and new housing a priority.”

“That in your Vancouver, no one should have to sleep outside at night. That as a city, we should strive to do better. And that we’re not backing down – not when the NPA is out there talking about new shelters and housing as a ‘waste.’”

“Thank you for responding. It means a lot. Let’s keep it going. Thanks, Gregor.”

Now I understand the concept of getting out in front of a bad news story. But I’m sorry, Gregor, that is a pretty damn cynical email to send.

Patrick Stewart, with the Aboriginal Homelessness Steering Committee summed things up much better: “I’m no politician, but in a country as rich as Canada there’s no need to have people living on the street.”

Chip Wilson, the Lululemon founder and ex-CEO, who introduced the mayor last year at the Vancouver Board of Trade, just built himself a $50 million waterfront home. This city is awash with money. Developers are making cash hand-over-fist, and many of them back Vision Vancouver financially.

“Condo King” Bob Rennie just held an exclusive lunch with the mayor, where he invited his developer friends to donate $25,000 to Vision Vancouver. Rennie is also one of the biggest supporters of provincial Liberal Premier Christy Clark. That’s why Robertson’s attempts to shift blame to the Province ring hollow; they’re backed by the same people. If Robertson and Vision Vancouver wanted to, they could mobilize their base to seriously call out the BC Liberals. But that isn’t likely, especially given the number of Liberals on the staff and in the leadership of Vision Vancouver.

It’s true that Vision Vancouver has a progressive base of supporters and voters, and that on issues like bike lanes and opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline they’ve taken strong stands that have angered the right wing.

It’s also true that the NPA can’t be trusted on housing issues and could implement even more regressive policies. But focusing on the right-wing threat from the NPA risks evading the fact that Vision Vancouver and Gregor Robertson are far too cozy with wealthy developers. They, like the NPA, are fundamentally a party backed by developers, serving those interests first. The homeless, and all those struggling in this unaffordable city, continue to come last.

Vancouver can and must do better. We can and must develop a better and fairer vision for this city’s future.