Like other cities, including Toronto, Vancouver has deployed many strategies to address the problem, from focusing on health care and drug abuse treatment to temporary housing units and small homeless shelters. There was a foreign buyer tax and an empty house tax. There has been an investigation into whether money laundering and corruption are behind the continued rise in real estate values in Vancouver.
There are currently proposals to change the property tax structure and provide incentives for high-density housing. One community organization is actually distributing cash, without restrictions, to the homeless who have been carefully screened and tracked their progress.
But the problem persists, with small campgrounds on downtown sidewalks and one neighborhood – Downtown East – that has been plagued by displacement for many years and a high rate of mental illness and substance abuse. Other cities have more homeless people, but few have such a high concentration as in downtown Vancouver’s east, where hundreds of people, many in apparent distress, occupy space on the sidewalk. The area around East Hastings Street may be the most chaotic city block I’ve seen in North America.
In the United States, leaders in many stereotypically liberal cities have recently shown frustration with their homeless citizens and the camps where many congregate. In December, for example, San Francisco Mayor London Breed implicitly linked homelessness to crime when she referred in a speech about a promised crime-fighting initiative to rampant homelessness, including people living in tents. “We’re past the point where what we see is acceptable from a distance,” Breid said.
San Francisco is more of a leading indicator than an odd one. Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and others have also cracked down on homeless camps this year, and political rhetoric has grown harsher.
Vancouver has a displacement incubator profile. It consistently has the highest rents in Canada (more than $2,200 CAD, or about $1,671 USD) for a one-bedroom apartment) and is known to have a limited supply of housing, not only because of the economy and development trends but because of the waters and mountains that surround the city. Wealth is plentiful: single-family homes, of which there are many, in fine neighborhoods, of which there are also many, go to the millions.
The city seems to confirm the hypothesis that homelessness is driven first and foremost by rising costs and an insufficient supply of housing. So I was surprised when I sat down with a longtime activist in Vancouver who wanted to focus attention on other factors.
Heather Hay is the Acting Executive Director of the Foundation for Social Change, a nonprofit organization that is currently running a pilot program providing cash transfers to 200 homeless people in Vancouver. (The group is also following up on a control group of 200 other people.) The project arose from a smaller cash transfer test that yielded positive results.
“My background is working with marginalized populations,” said Hay, a registered nurse who led a health and safety initiative for 15 years in the downtown East. “In Vancouver, when everyone thinks of homelessness, they think of Midtown East.”
When Hay’s organization began looking for potential customers for cash transfers, they examined a range of issues. “We were looking for individuals who don’t have complex mental health issues, don’t abuse drugs or alcohol and don’t have significant gambling problems,” she said. In other words, people who can “make appropriate decisions for themselves”.
Hay likened examining homeless residents to looking for a needle in a haystack. “When they did the pilot, they interviewed more than 780 people to get a sample size of 115,” she said. The vast majority of people interviewed failed to meet the criteria because downtown East, she said, “represents too much for people with complex mental health and addiction issues.”
Vancouver’s March 2020 time point count found nearly 2,100 homeless people in the city, about half of them in the downtown East. Not much outside the downtown east shows the kind of behavior that prevails there. However, Hay remains skeptical that the much-touted “housing first” approach can solve the homelessness problem. “In the pilot, many of the participants were working three or four jobs, and the reason they fell behind on the street was because they lost one of those jobs. Otherwise, it was because their car didn’t work, and it was a huge expense.” “For some residents, we need to give people money.”
Of course, lack of money for rent is one way the lack of money manifests itself. In an expensive city, the resulting conflict “spits it white on the edge of the abyss,” Hay said. The more time a person spends homeless after a financial or other setback, the more likely they are to fall prey to mental illness, drugs, or alcohol. “So I think, yeah, we can throw housing at this problem,” Hay said. “But I don’t think housing will address the overall problem.”
Greg Colburn is Assistant Professor of Real Estate at the University of Washington, a position he earned after transitioning mid-career from high-profile finance to academia. His view on homelessness is illustrated by the caption of a book he co-authored, “Homelessness a Housing Problem: How Structural Factors Explain Patterns in the United States.”
When you look at the regional disparity and rates of homelessness, places with higher rates of homelessness don’t have more poor people. They have no more addicted people. “They don’t have more mentally ill people,” Colborne said.
Colborne’s argument about homelessness has the same basic criteria as a familiar analysis of American exclusivity in firearm homicide rates. Europe, for example, does not have fewer people with mental illness than the United States. It generally does not have lower rates of nonviolent crime. What Europe has is fewer weapons. That’s why it has less gun violence.
Colburn similarly points out that many troubled cities have worse problems than Los Angeles, Seattle, Vancouver and other global places with high rates of homelessness. What these troubled cities don’t have, Colborne said, is a housing crisis.
Seattle doesn’t have a homelessness problem because we have more people with mental illness. Now, is mental illness the cause of homelessness? Indeed he is. But there are mentally ill people in Detroit, Chicago, West Virginia, Arkansas and all of those places. And they have nowhere near the problem that we have.
And when you think about drugs, places with some of the most severe drug problems in the United States, like Arkansas and West Virginia, where the opioid epidemic has devastated communities, don’t have homelessness problems. And so, if drugs are really the main driver here, we should see massive homeless populations in Arkansas and West Virginia. We don’t. In fact, there are already very low rates of homelessness.
Low-income Seattle residents have no margin for error in the tireless struggle to pay rent. If the car breaks down, or they develop an extended illness, they may be drowned. Climbing again into the ranks of the tabernacle is also more difficult.
“The other problem is that the vacancy rates are very low,” Colborne said. “Even if you have some resources, if you lose your housing, finding somewhere else is really hard. So it doesn’t take much for someone to be in a good place, lose a job, have unexpected expenses, lose their housing, and then soon It’s very hard to be in the system, you know, to get out of that system is very difficult.”
For Colborne, the distinction between Seattle and cities with high poverty rates is clear.
Detroit has the highest poverty rate in the country by far. Cleveland has very high poverty rates. St. Louis, Baltimore – All of these places have really high poverty rates, which means the percentage of people below the federal poverty line. And they have very low displacement rates. Seattle and San Francisco are among the wealthiest cities in the country. Are there poor people in Seattle? Certainly there. But as a percentage of the total population, the percentage of people below the federal poverty line in Seattle and San Francisco is really low, right? In fact, we have relatively few poor people. But the consequences of being poor in a market like this are really serious. This is basically the problem.
It’s hard to create more affordable housing — at least it seems to rely mostly on meager results in all sorts of places. As my colleague Justin Fox points out, Minneapolis recently relaxed single-family zoning laws to encourage the kind of medium-density construction that activists applaud. However, the rule change did not produce much in the way of actual housing.
Giving people money to support themselves might be a more promising route. But if the Foundations of Social Change empirical program is any indication, it also depends greatly on the type of people receiving the money.
I asked Hay for the perfect list of her policies. None of it was too shocking. She legalized drugs in order to eliminate the endemic criminal incentives for groups of homeless people. Or offer a kind of holistic “therapeutic community” that can help some regulars around downtown East to escape their trauma.
Hay noted that in an earlier incarnation of the Vancouver policy, housing for homeless individuals was provided along with a variety of levels of services, from comprehensive social services “Cadillacs” to basic housing. “The people who were in the Cadillacs, with the highest level of support, fared better and had more sustainability to be able to move forward,” she said. “Just putting the control group in place, in housing, didn’t achieve much.”
One of the things she knows from the countless conversations with homeless people, she said, is that many would like to stay elsewhere. “We know a lot of people don’t want to be there. So why not ask them ‘Where do you want to be?’ and help them move where they want to be in some kind of supportive housing?”
Ultimately improving the situation is a matter of public will, Hai said. “Why don’t we have a zero-tolerance policy for homelessness?” She asked. “Instead of enabling and continuing, we can just adopt a policy.”
Hay’s suggestion seems simple and impractical. But it may be the only path that stands a chance of lasting success.
Canada does a much better job of preventing gun violence than the United States does, not because it brings in more financial resources to afford it but because it has more social, moral, and political capital dedicated to making sure its people are not targets. In fact, there is zero tolerance for gun violence. By contrast, the United States has a high tolerance for gun violence — and eight times more gun deaths per capita than its neighbour. If Canada cares as much about reducing homelessness as it does preventing gun violence, Americans may have something else to envy about their neighbors to the north.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
Just giving the homeless a home is what works: Noah Smith
• Homelessness at the End of the Lincoln Expressway: Frank Barry
• Fight Covid by finding homes for the homeless: Tracy Walsh
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Frances Wilkinson is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering American politics and politics. He previously worked as editor of The Week, writer for Rolling Stone, communications consultant, and political media strategist.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion