Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Why are there homeless people in Vancouver?

with 12 comments

Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver’s homeless advocate, retires after more than two decades on the job

The CBC interviewed her on The Current and The Early Edition – you can read a condensed version here – but this question and answer seemed to hit the crux of the matter

Q: Why were so many people on the streets and in the doorways?

A: We had several people collide in the early 90s. We had the federal government pull out of supplying subsidized housing for the very poor. We had been developing rapidly in Vancouver so the old rooming houses had been torn down and the apartments that had been built weren’t affordable for anybody with a low income.

Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver's homeless advocate, retires after more than two decades on the job.

Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver’s homeless advocate, retires after more than two decades on the job. (CBC )

We had welfare cutbacks, and the system became so difficult that people with any kind of brain injury or mental illness could not navigate the system.

There were government programs – but they were cut. Homelessness was the result. I would say that the result was inevitable. I would go further. I would say that homelessness was created deliberately.

There has been a steady drumbeat throughout my working life that taxes were too high, and that government spending was wasteful. Money should be left in peoples’ pockets so they could spend it – not some bureaucrat. And the market was a much more efficient system for ensuring a better outcome. There was a stream of people claiming that the intellectual foundations of the Chicago school of economists were far more intellectually respectable than “the left”. Friedrich Hayek – of whom I had never heard when studying political philosophy – was now canonized. There were a number of platitudes that were recited about the rising tide that raised all boats, that increasing economic growth would benefit everybody. That wealth would “trickle down”.

It was, of course, all nonsense. Mostly lies and half truths. What was actually happening was that the rich had decided they no longer wanted to pay taxes. They disapproved of the priorities of society and wanted to keep their wealth for their own indulgences. Only a few areas were to be protected – or possibly see increased spending. Defence, prisons and policing.  After “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” it was easy and popular to close grim mental institutions. There was talk of “care in the community” but none was ever provided.

And even though tax rates for the wealthy plummeted, the expected increase in government revenues that was supposed to occur never did. The wealthy were no more willing to pay lower taxes than high ones, and came up with ever more creative ways of hiding their money. They moved it to tax havens. Tax avoidance became the major source of income for a number of small, independent countries that had very little else to generate foreign earnings. The Cayman Islands has a bit of tourism – but earns much more from looking after money than people.

I can clearly recall an economics lesson learned at East Ham Grammar School. The teacher had been a well paid Ford executive but left that job to teach there. And I can still see him sitting at the front of the room arguing with some conservative minded students. He said that he actually felt that he ought to pay taxes, because he appreciated what those taxes bought. Not the least of which was the room in which we were sitting.

There is no doubt at all that many publicly funded services are far more efficient than their private sector comparators. Healthcare is the most obvious. The management cost of the US private system – mostly insurance companies looking at ways to avoid paying for procedures – greatly exceeds that of the public systems like Canada or the UK. ICBC is actually a cheaper way to provide car insurance, with a better outcomes – especially when their collision data is used to drive road safety measures, something a private sector insurer would never consider. The privatization of British Rail resulted in public sector costs that were four times higher than they were  in public ownership. Competition did not drive down costs.

In order to pull off this triumph, the elite have had to hijack democracy. We keep on voting for right wing governments, despite their obvious failures. Well, a lot of people no longer vote. That makes things a lot easier. The right wing has mastered the art of storytelling – the “narrative” now always trumps anything backed by objective research. And, just in case, those engaged in such activities will be silenced. Many willingly collude with these devices. The “buy in” to the myths and legends is quite impressive. And those of us who have facts and figures on our side are urged “don’t go negative” – with the result here we have recently seen.

The cure for homelessness has always been obvious and staring us in the face. House them. The private sector has a long and miserable record of housing the poor – since exploitation is always going to trump any other strategy for a rent seeking or profit maximizing entity. The public sector’s involvement is more problematic. The record is spotty, partly due to the way that its activities were always moderated by those who were less than enthusiastic about it succeeding – or being seen to succeed. It is only when there is fear of the lack of a social safety net that people will comply with requirements that are obviously against their own best interests – but they see little or no alternative. Homelessness – and people begging on the streets – serve as a useful minatory device. This is what will happen to you if you don’t co-operate.

The City, of course, has no powers that it could use to actually address the  problem. Even the City of Vancouver, which has a Charter and thus has somewhat more ability than other lesser municipalities entirely subject the whims of the legislators. They may  indeed hire another advocate. They may allow a few more shelters to open – but only in really bad weather, of course. Not all the time. And the shelter provision is minimal: it does not even pretend to be housing.   And the shelter experience itself drives many to the streets as comparatively safer places.

Postscript – please also read the comment by MB: the last paragraph of this post is unfair to the City of Vancouver, and I apologize for that. But not everybody shares his opinions about these developments

UPDATE “30,000 Canadians are homeless every night, 200,000 Canadians are homeless in any given year, national report says” CBC from which we learn

“Vancouver, through a series of public and private partnerships, has achieved a 66 per cent reduction in street homelessness.”

This post was further updated on December 31, 2013 with the addition of two links – one on why people don’t vote and another on how Utah intends to end homelessness

Written by Stephen Rees

May 29, 2013 at 9:21 am

Posted in housing, politics

Tagged with ,

12 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Excellent and well written post.

    We see the same here. In fact in the college I currently attend you can tell whose parents own a small business: they’re the ones complaining about the taxes (which pay for the school they’re sitting in). And I can see how having a homeless population is a good deterrent to people wanting to step out of the rat race. Making sure housing is expensive also helps because there’s a fear that if your income drops you can’t pay the rent/mortgage

    Our local authority is currently trying to evict some people living in self-built houses and trying to reassure them that in ‘cases of hardship’ there would be help to pay the rent in a normal apartment. The point that there are currently no cases of hardship is lost on the town hall, but it did occur to me that One alternative or possibly complementary method for reducing homelessness is to do the opposite: allow, indeed help some people to build their own homes and live in them. This would seem to be a simple and cost effective way of helping people have a place to live and more self-esteem in one go.

    Andy in Germany

    May 29, 2013 at 1:04 pm

  2. Nowhere in your piece did you mention that the City of Vancouver is using its biggest non-financial asset — land — and has donated 14 of its city-owned sites worth tens of millions to new 10+ storey buildings purposely built to house the homeless. They are spread throughout the city, including in tony Dunbar which was vociferous in its opposition, but which didn’t affect its recent completion. This is in cooperation with the conserva … er Liberal provincial government that funds these new buildings and also funded the conversion of many SRO slum hotels to safer havens for the homeless and underhoused. Both governments operate them with non-profits and public servants, all with central kitchens and nursing + addictions and mental health services.

    Name one other city in Western Canada that has done the same (well, maybe Winnipeg follows second). Even so-called progressive city councils in the Metro deny they have a homeless problem, or just ignore it.

    Stop picking on Vancouver, Stephen. Start looking at the record in your own backyard (Richmond).


    May 29, 2013 at 4:40 pm

  3. Meredith, you are right. Vancouver has done more than any other city in metro for the homeless. Indeed it can be (and often is) argued that other cities have downloaded their problems onto Vancouver. But it is also my backyard. I have not lived in Richmond for a while and, as of this coming weekend, will no longer own property there.

    But it is also the case that there are still homeless people in this city. And if the rich would only start paying their taxes, then there would be more than enough resources available to deal with this issue – and many others – effectively.

    Stephen Rees

    May 29, 2013 at 4:50 pm

  4. There are many reasons for homelessness…
    As it is many working people are one step away from being homeless, living as they do from paycheck to paycheck, simply because their wages are low and they work part-time, both through no fault of their own. It is a wonder that they manage to hang on as the emotional, psychological and physical stress must be horrible. Especially if the bread winner is a single parent.

    Years ago a manager in a Robson store told me that she had to have 3 par-time jobs and was running from one to the other. Every so often she was fired from one job because of “her lack of flexibility”!!!! The extra $ for being a manager was not much. She had the average Canadian degree plus, like so many others.

    A few years after I landed in Canada, in the late 70s, I worked 40hrs a week, or more, doing temporary work (anything from a day to 6-8 months in one business). I was making $ 10 per hrs.. The rent (a big furnished studio in a Victorian house in the Annex), the food, entertainment (great old movies for 99 cents), clothes etc. were reasonable compared to my income.

    How is it that the businesses where I worked could afford to pay $ 10-20 plus in those days?

    Red frog

    May 30, 2013 at 12:07 am

  5. Stephen & Andy, there are many, many reasons why homelessness is prevalent today, and the prescription will have to go well beyond the as-yet inadequately addressed first step, to build homes for the homeless. Building temporary shelters is not a permanent solution. Neither is building permanent homes without accessible public services.

    Vancouver’s DTES poverty density stems back over a century when the SRO hotels were built pre-WWI predominantly in one neighbourhood for single men working the docks and retiring from logging elsewhere in the province. Alcohol abuse has always been present in all social and income classes in our society, but the cheap rents and access to a plethora of bars slinging cheap draft and liquor stores everywhere made this locale ideal for concentrated, deep alcoholism. The stage was set for the later appearance of heroin, then again for crack cocaine in the 80s. It has never gotten lower since crack.

    Addiction and mental illness is a huge part of the poverty there, probably the root cause. The SROs merely lubricated the increase in addiction and abuse by making it easy to live in a neighbourhood with concentrated access to addictive substances at every turn. This is a classic case of environment further defeating nurture in a place where many were driven after the failure of nurturing social conditions in their own lives, often extending back generations. The legacy of Residential Schools and cultural decimation on First Nations is one of the more obvious traits. The few nurturing programs allowed to operate there have shown levels of success not obtained by the decades-old, expensive and unmitigated failure of the War on Drugs narrative favoured by social conservatives. It is no surprise that their successes were possible only under the health care system combined with modest efforts to supply decent housing, and also that their success has been constrained by conservative governments whose collective attitude seems to be to forget that the addicted are human beings too.

    First must come stability, and if that means limited government-prescribed alcohol and drugs to divert the addicted from criminal activity on the streets, then I have no problem with that as long as they can be assessed b y medical professionals, function on a daily basis and get into mandatory treatment programs and better housing on a long-term basis.

    The DTES may be located in Vancouver, but the residents are from all over province and country. Therefore, it is not just a Vancouver issue. All Metro suburbs have homeless living io parks and parkades, but few suburban councils care to acknowledge this. Vancouver and Liberal minister Rich Coleman are to be commended for tackling this problem head on and putting their combined resources into real projects and programs. There is a lot to criticize about the Liberals (who are really conservatives with a name change), but on this file they have excelled. I believe this may be due in part to someone in the Ministry of Health actually doing the numbers on what it costs to ignore the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill.

    It is no surprise that Vancouver’s budget approaches $2,000 per capita while other cities in the Metro enjoy budgets less than 1/2 that burden. Indeed, some bedroom communities pay ¼ per capita what Vancouverites pay. Vancouver has been carrying the region in terms of supportive infrastructure and public services for the province’s largest amenities (four largest employment centres, two largest hospital complexes, regional sports stadiums, higher densities, the largest university in western Canada, the largest share of port infrastructure, the largest and most crowded parks system, higher taxes due to higher housing values, a higher residential tax burden due to shifting it off the commercial base, etc.) and has taken the brunt of many things like the downsides of hosting the Olympics and the damage during riots on the chin. (Most of the charged Stanley Cup rioters were not from Vancouver. Other than Richmond and Whistler, no other cities hosted 2010 venues with their associated crowds and security concerns.) It also has assumed responsibility for the largest concentration of poverty in western Canada.

    So really, now, some of us are a bit tired and annoyed at Vancouver’s critics – some of whom are high-ranking politicians elsewhere in the region — and wish for an elected Metro government that would have the balls to distribute the public costs of all these things across the other 20 cities through a fairer regional taxation system, cities that otherwise enjoy the benefits of Vancouver virtually free, and falsely claim to have none of Vancouver’s troubles. Let’s first recognize what has been accomplished so far. Second, determine what courses of action to take next. Third, create a more equitable regional tax system (without going down the troublesome road of amalgamation – let’s learn from Rob Ford). Then address making the rich pay more.


    May 30, 2013 at 9:44 am

  6. Meredith

    I am not looking at the idea of increasing taxes on the wealthy just to tackle homelessness, but rather the need to reverse the trend of recent years across all levels of government that has seen public services of all kinds reduced just to give tax breaks to the wealthy. A truly progressive taxation system, and an end to tax havens, are not long term aspirations but immediate necessities. For a whole range of issues, none of them peculiar to Greater Vancouver.

    As for linkages between mental health, addiction and homelessness you are perhaps unaware of the success of one initiative in Victoria
    I would like to think that this is being copied widely, but somehow I doubt it

    Stephen Rees

    May 30, 2013 at 10:23 am

  7. There were homeless people in Bordeaux when I was a child…what is different now–there as here–is that many of them are young people that may have been abused at home then used drugs as a crutch.

    The first time I visited Japan, in the mid-90s, I was surprised to see many homeless people. OR, more to the point, what looked like a parallel society.
    In public parks, along rivers, under freeways, people have built tiny shacks with scrounged material and blue tarps. Some of them have a small garden around their home, often with a clothing line with laundry drying on it.

    To me this is worse than the homeless on the sidewalks as it is easy to ignore those in the parks and along rivers as they don’t beg. The police ignore them, everyone ignore them, except western religious groups that serve them food, but only after these abandoned people have sung a few hymns of a religion foreign to their culture..

    Red frog

    May 30, 2013 at 9:04 pm

  8. I am stunned to learn that homelessness continues to be an issue while many wealthy people spend their millions without a second thought for the fate of those less fortunate. And it’s not just the wealthy- NO ONE seems committed to come up with a comprehensive plan to provide affordable housing for the destitute- save Vancouver, who seems to be struggling to do SOMETHING; I’m not sure what. And now we are losing Judy Graves- and no replacement( I’m not sure who paid her wages but whoever did so doesn’t seem to see that homeless people need an advocate). That’s another shocker. And we call ourselves a civilized society?

    Nancy Maglio

    May 31, 2013 at 1:11 am

  9. I’d agree with MB. IMO there are many reasons for homelessness and many possible solutions, of which local governments play a new but important role. Compare New West and Burnaby:

    “There are no permanent 24-hour homeless shelters in Burnaby. There are no transitional housing residences for the homeless in Burnaby. This, among our larger cities, makes Burnaby unique. And Burnaby is this province’s third-largest city.


    After establishing a homelessness coalition and hiring a social planner, New Westminster partnered with the provincial government’s B.C. Housing to build units. Between 2008 and 2011, there was a 45-per-cent drop in the number of unsheltered homeless in the city.

    “We wanted (the facilities) here,” said New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright. “We went after the province to put them here. They (B.C. Housing) put together the funding and we made sure to put it through the system as fast as we could — identifying sites, zoning changes, that sort of thing.””


    June 1, 2013 at 8:07 pm

  10. Derek Corrigan refuses to support shelters or transitional housing b/c he says it is the Fed or Victoria’s role, full stop. And absolutely no role, however small, for cities?

    “My column questioned Mayor Derek Corrigan’s steadfast policy that a permanent shelter in Burnaby must be bought and supported by the province or Ottawa. I said maybe it’s time that Burnaby dropped this line and rather, fell into line with most cities (large and small) in the region and put up a piece of land for a shelter.

    A one-time pittance, relatively speaking, perhaps a couple of million dollars, for a city with a reserve fund in the $600-million ballpark. Or put up a piece of land from the city’s massive land bank. Meantime, the province would cover operating costs.”


    Resistance to making efforts to help come from all areas. Attributed to Mayor Corrigan, via the NewsLeader:

    “The people in permanent shelters—of which Vancouver has dozens and most cities in the region have at least one—are by and large beyond hope, he said. They’re either addicted, seriously mentally ill, or habitual criminals. Some live in rooms crammed with junk floor-to-ceiling, and many rooms are infested with bugs. And, as he told me, many are the type of folks who, if they found you dying on the sidewalk would pull out your gold fillings. Are these the kind of people Burnaby residents want living in their neighbourhood, he asks, when the province doesn’t even assign them a social worker?”


    June 1, 2013 at 8:16 pm

  11. […] Why are there homeless people in Vancouver? […]

  12. […] Why are there homeless people in Vancouver? […]

    Homeless |

    April 22, 2014 at 2:55 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: