Before I decided to run for Mayor of Vancouver, I met with residents of the Strathcona Park encampment to hear their stories
Most of the folks who I spoke with had previously lived in one of Vancouver's notorious slum hotels at one point or another. These are the single-room occupancy (SRO) buildings which often house Vancouver's most vulnerable.
"One day, I saw a woman from three floors up, with just a towel wrapped around her, looking for a shower that works," one man said. "The whole place stank. And the cockroaches, rats, and bedbugs! And the broken toilets," he continued.
"It's better here in my tent. The air is clean here. I feel much safer here."
Not long afterwards, I visited some of the private SROs myself. I instantly understood what he was talking about.
When the Oppenheimer and Strathcona tent encampments were taken down, BC Housing had to scramble to find people some shelter.
The province purchased dilapidated hotels with no customers because there were no tourists due to the pandemic.
These were stopgap measures. Senior governments haven't built the kind of public housing we've needed for over a generation.
In the meantime, more tents popped up elsewhere and, more recently, all along Hastings Street.
The city's fire chief ordered these tents to be cleared last month, saying they were an extreme fire safety hazard - both to the tents, their occupants, and the buildings they were blocking.
The chaos we saw this past week on Hastings Street resulted from years of government inaction and a leaderless City Hall over the past four years.
The fundamental problem is that the occupants of the tents have nowhere to go.
Because senior governments haven't delivered on building the housing and support we urgently need.
It's well past the time to take urgent action.
We learned from COVID that if we, as a society, come together to tackle a crisis, fundamental change can be mobilized with great speed.
It's time to treat this crisis with the same sense of urgency.
Until we build livable, dignified, and accessible housing for people at every level of income and mental health, tents like these will continue to be with us.
Until all governments collectively forge a solution to this, it makes much more sense to identify some city-owned land where people can temporarily live in their tents safely. A secure place with washrooms, sanitation services, access to power, and storage.
This cannot be a long-term solution, but in the short term, this will make our streets safer and help ease the suffering of our most vulnerable people.
What we need is a comprehensive plan.
As Mayor leading a Progress Vancouver Council, I will:
- Negotiate a new Vancouver Agreement, where the City, Province, and Federal governments work together to coordinate swift action with a unified strategy and funding model.
- Secure senior government funding to buy up all of the city's privately owned single-room occupancy hotels, keeping many trapped in a cycle of poverty and living in tents. Over time, most of these SROs should be demolished in favour of public, government-owned housing with appropriate mental health and community supports.
- Cut the red tape at City Hall that is a barrier to building the housing we need. All the senior government funding in the world won't make a difference if building permits and rezonings are tied up for years at City Hall.
- Conduct a comprehensive audit of all services in the Downtown Eastside to determine if they meet their objectives.
- Advocate for the NDP Government in Victoria to step up and increase the $375 shelter rate to reflect the actual housing cost burdens on the most vulnerable British Columbians.
- Advocate for greater provincial government investments into the kind of services that can allow people suffering from trauma and addiction to find a path to healing
- Advocate with the Liberal government in Ottawa to do its share through CMHC and increase funding for non-market housing solutions to get more new non-profit and co-op housing projects built.
- Build mixed-income, financially self-supporting, city-owned housing, using the revenue from a portion of market-rate units to subsidize affordable homes.
Vancouver should not have to shoulder the entire responsibility for the whole region.
Cities throughout Canada should take responsibility for their residents, and funding from other levels of government should reflect this.
Even with immense effort and coordination by all three levels of government, this will be a significant challenge.
Still, by taking these common-sense actions, real progress can be made, and everyone's quality of life can be improved.
It is well past the time to take action.
City Hall has been rudderless for four years.
Putting forward solutions to address Vancouver's challenges requires leadership, for a change.
Mark Marissen is a businessman, owner of Burrard Strategy, and a political strategist running for Vancouver mayor as the Progress Vancouver candidate.