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Strathcona can’t wait

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Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung: Kennedy Stewart’s urgent homelessness motion had nothing to do with relief for the Strathcona encampment. Here’s why.

An encampment has been growing over the past months at Strathcona Park, a visible manifestation of the ongoing, sustained homeless, addictions and mental health issues we’re facing in Vancouver. Now numbering approximately 400 tents, the impact has been severe: altercations between campers and those living nearby, and a significant rise in crime.

Neighbours, including moms and families, are scared, stressed, and at their wits’ end. They’ve lost their neighbourhood green space, their kids have been threatened, suffered break-ins, and more. It takes a real toll on their mental health.

For the homeless tenting in the park, conditions continue to worsen as sanitation breaks down, cooler weather comes, and those who prey on the vulnerable move in.

The encampment is not a good situation for anyone. And it’s been complicated by jurisdictional challenges between the Vancouver Park Board and the City of Vancouver. Everyone acknowledges the problems of homelessness and addiction are severe and beyond local government’s ability to solve without help from senior levels of government; the City just doesn’t have the resources or mandate to go it alone.

Regardless of the impact on their daily lives, area residents have demonstrated real, sincere compassion. They’ve led the call for solutions such as providing homes, or consideration of a temporary encampment not on park space. Bottom line, they are calling for their government leaders to step up and do something.

Enter Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who called a Special Council meeting to bring a motion titled Emergency COVID-19 Relief for Unsheltered Vancouver Residents.

This was despite a motion from two other Councillors already on the agenda for the following week, titled Temporary Disaster Relief Shelters.

What did the Mayor propose?

  • 1: Leasing or purchasing housing units including hotels, single-room occupancy residences, and other available housing stock. (The provincial government is already doing this.)
  • 2: Establishing a temporary emergency relief encampment. (Already on the upcoming Council agenda.)
  • 3: Temporarily converting City-owned buildings into emergency housing or shelter space. (Done early in the pandemic response, with community centres now being returned to much-needed community use.)

What was missing?

Conspicuously absent was any mention of working to provide a safer alternative for campers and relief to Strathcona residents. Or indeed, any mention of Strathcona Park at all.

So, Council spent hours on a special meeting, heard from speakers, and amendments were made to include more specifics on a temporary emergency relief encampment – and critically, to include language about working towards the decampment of Strathcona Park once a housing option or options were identified.

The big takeaway:

Along with Councillors Boyle and Swanson, the Mayor voted against working to facilitate the decampment of Strathcona Park. There’s no immediate prospect for getting Strathcona campers out of the cold or of providing relief to a beleaguered and scared neighbourhood.

What’s next?

Council directed staff to report back by early October on the feasibility and costs of the various options to accelerate emergency housing in the short term. That’s when the real conversation will happen. And with a provincial election underway, we know there’s no further help coming soon.

A non-politico who finds herself in politics, Sarah Kirby-Yung is a first-time Vancouver City Councillor and former Vancouver Park Board Chair and Commissioner.

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