4 min

Civil to whom?

Vancouver is in crisis and Sullivan's clean-up plan won't help

I love Vancouver and as a lesbian I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world. But as a former city councillor I am deeply concerned about the growing numbers of homeless, ill, addicted and vulnerable people I see and speak with every day. And I don’t think Mayor Sam Sullivan’s Civil City project will do much to alleviate the problem.

Sullivan’s Civil City campaign —led by former Liberal attorney general Geoff Plant, the man who cut the Human Rights Commission and gutted income assistance —has three years to eliminate homelessness, panhandling, the open drug market and other forms of undesirable behaviour from our soon-to-be Olympic streets.

I certainly don’t dispute the need to address poverty, addiction and homelessness, but I doubt Sullivan’s plan will truly address these issues and their root causes.

As the West End Residents Association (WERA) says: “WERA believes that the Civil City initiative is an over-simplistic, blame-the-victim approach to Vancouver social issues. Civil City places the emphasis on the symptoms, not the causes. We have to look at why there is homelessness, why there is drug addiction and why there is crime. Just slapping people with fines or pressuring them to move to another community won’t solve anything.”

Look at Sullivan’s goal to eliminate homelessness, or at least reduce it by 50 percent by 2010. There are already 3,000 homeless people in Vancouver, yet Sullivan’s plan provides not one single concrete suggestion for providing more housing.

Why hasn’t he implemented the full Homeless Action Plan developed by the previous council that I sat on with COPE? Our plan committed to purchasing one Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel each year for the next 10 years.

Sullivan’s council not only won’t commit to providing a guaranteed number of new affordable housing options per year, it even axed the 30 percent affordable housing component from the SE False Creek Plan —essentially designating the last piece of waterfront land in Vancouver for the wealthy.

The BC government’s recent purchase of 10 existing SROs might be a step in the right direction but it won’t increase the overall number of affordable units in the city.

Pivot Legal Society estimates that the number of homeless people will increase two and a half times by 2010.

Meanwhile in the Davie Village, more and more members of the queer community are fighting to keep their own homes against a tide of rising rents.

Developers like Hollyburn Properties are buying up rental units to convert them to condos. Word has it that one of their recently renovated units, which once rented for $1390, is now up to about $3,000.

Clearly, the question of affordable housing affects us all, on one level or another.

Plant has also been charged with the task of reducing the incidence of aggressive panhandling by at least 50 percent by 2010. This seems like a good plan but has anyone on Sullivan’s team asked why we have so many people panhandling?

It’s no coincidence that the number of panhandlers skyrocketed after Plant’s changes to the income assistance plan. One study showed that over 70 percent of homeless people cannot access income assistance. Rents are soaring while shelters are filling with people who are unable to find housing that they can afford on minimum wage.

Plant’s solution while in government was to pass the Safe Streets Act to penalize “aggressive” panhandlers. Using the scarce resources of the police to slap poor people with yet another ticket or jail term does not help anyone get off the streets.

“Sullivan’s Civil City clean-up plan could have horrible effects on our street youth, who in a McCreary Centre study identify as over 50 percent queer,” says parks commissioner Spencer Herbert. “The real problem is a lack of housing and support services. The NPA’s Civil City does nothing to solve this.

“It’s a PR strategy pure and simple. If they really wanted a civil city they would treat people with respect, and realize the solution to homelessness is housing, not more reports,” Herbert says.

Herbert and I are not alone in our concerns. Many people are speaking out against the mayor’s plan, and asking if it will be civil to the poor, the homeless, aboriginal women and the queer community.

A group of 16 activists, city councillors and progressive MLAs recently prepared a statement calling on all levels of government to commit to the protection and building of low and affordable housing, to raising the assistance rates to realistic levels, and to the continuation of the Four Pillars comprehensive approach to drug addiction.

Last spring they packed the auditorium at the First United Church for a meeting called Civil City Slam, chaired by MP Libby Davies. They plan to monitor the impacts of Project Civil City and report back to the public.

I love Vancouver, but it’s in a public crisis. Mayor Sam Sullivan needs to take the lead, joining other municipalities in their call for more funding from other levels of government to address the housing situation.

The provincial and federal governments are showing billion-dollar surpluses —the federal government has $14 billion, the province $4.1 billion and a $250-million housing endowment funding. How hard can it be to provide the 3,200 units of social housing committed to in the Inner City Inclusive Agreement?

The city must implement the Homeless Action Plan. The province must implement rent controls, increase income assistance, and provide social support and assisted housing for the mentally ill. The federal government needs to support and fund the safe injection site Insite and other projects that provide the fourth pillar of harm reduction.

So far, Civil City is stalled. Plant has yet to provide a report to council.

But we need to be vigilant that the Olympics, which are bringing so much wealth to a few developers while spending an enormous amount of public money, will also bring significantly better living conditions for all. Not a Civil City that brushes undesirables under the carpet and out of sight.

The homeless do not choose to be without a home. The poor do not choose poverty. The drug-addicted do not choose addiction. Public money is being spent that will penalize the poor, the addicted and the homeless, rather than improve their situations and make Vancouver a great city.

A real civil city is a Vancouver that offers hope for everyone —the mentally ill, the homeless, those addicted to dangerous drugs, women and families on inadequate incomes, ignored minorities and street youth.