B.C. party leaders are confronted with demands to deal with growing urban camping and associated crime as they campaign for the Oct. 24 provincial election, but after years and hundreds of millions spent to provide housing, they admit the problem is growing faster than the solutions.
Their daily media appearances are dominated by questions about Vancouver’s camps, which former social development minister Shane Simpson has acknowledged are among those that are partly genuine homeless people and partly protest organizers, staging one camp after another.
Simpson estimated in debate on his ministry budget this summer that there were 40 urban tent camps around B.C., with 1,000 or more people living in them. “Those numbers move,” he told the legislature. “What we’re not certain about, of course, is the numbers of people who are in significant need of housing and people who are there for activist purposes as well.”
NDP leader John Horgan has repeatedly said the problem has been made worse by COVID-19, despite recent acquisitions of hotels and motels in Victoria and Vancouver to move people from tent camps, and modular housing in other B.C. communities. He asked for patience.
“We have made progress in real terms but it doesn’t appear that way, when shelter beds, which are often there for those who are struggling to find a place to live permanently, are no longer available, which pushes more people out into the streets and into encampments,” Horgan said at a campaign stop in Coquitlam Sept. 29.
“Despite our best efforts it seems to the public that this is getting out of control,” Horgan said, adding he is “again appealing to federal partners in Ottawa to take a hard look at how they can get back into the business of housing, not just with press releases but with dollars and commitment to planning to help us get through this.”
One of those places is Campbell River, where the local fire department responded Sept. 28 to multiple 9-1-1 calls of a fire in a park with campers in it. B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson visited Sept. 29, where he blamed the NDP for a problem he and his government tackled with similar efforts for years before the 2017 election that brought Horgan to power.
“We’ve been saying for weeks now that when it comes to homelessness, you’ve got to treat the causes and prevent the harm,” Wilkinson said. “People are homeless for different reasons. When I go for my bike ride in the morning, there’s a park with two or three vehicles, and people are sleeping in them because they don’t have enough money. Those people need rental supports to get on with their lives.”
Rent supports were part of the approach of long-time B.C. Liberal housing minister Rich Coleman, who started by buying and renovating old hotels in Vancouver’s downtown east side, and then moved on to purchasing motels and disused senior homes in Victoria and other communities. Coleman has urged municipal leaders to stand up to community protests against adding supportive housing for mentally ill and drug-addicted people.
Horgan noted that his government’s use of modular housing and more hotels and motels has eliminated tent camps on Surrey’s Whalley strip, Victoria’s Pandora Street, in Nanaimo and at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver. A court order this summer closed the Oppenheimer camp, which moved to other city locations with the help of organizer Chrissy Brett, who previously gathered street people into a series of camps in Victoria and Nanaimo.
Horgan took aim at Wilkinson’s campaign pledge to eliminate B.C.’s provincial sales tax for a year to leave more money in people’s pockets during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Eliminating the PST will not help one homeless person or one community that feels beset upon by the increase in encampments,” Horgan said.