When I moved to Vancouver in June of 1981, I had no difficulty in finding an apartment I could afford, in the neighbourhood I chose. A year later, I moved again-to a different neighbourhood that would allow me to walk to work. Not only did I have no difficulty in finding that apartment, but the work colleague who had encouraged me to move to her building, received a reduction in rent for some months, as a thank you.

And there were no homeless people to be seen. This description seems like a tale ones grandparents would tell about a time long, long ago.

Twenty-five years is certainly longer than a minute, but not long, long ago. What has happened to change plentiful affordable housing and little or no homelessness to the current situation? Several things:

Beginning in 1982, the province de-institutionalized mentally ill people, arguing that their recovery would be aided by living in supportive communities. Unfortunately, adequate supports have never been put in place.

The federal government removed itself from involvement in the provision of subsidized and co-op housing.

Housing became increasingly a speculative investment. Since home ownership, even at the entry level, is no longer an option for many who had been aiming to own, these individuals must rent. But no new market rentals have been built for the past fifteen years.

It's easy to think first of the mentally ill people we see on the streets when we describe the homeless. We assume that alcohol and drug addiction is responsible for homelessness, not recognizing that many people begin to take drugs as a result of being on the street-to take away some of the pain.

There are others less visible, but equally homeless, and there is an increasing number of people at great risk of becoming homeless.

The invisible homeless include working people who can't find an affordable rental: the construction workers working on new buildings, the'pink collar' workers and the minimum wage earners throughout Vancouver who don't earn enough to cover the rent. They "sofa-surf" on the couches of friends or relatives.

Then there are the people who are one disaster away from becoming homeless. Some could be in a pew near you: the renters who can't afford to move because new rents are so high, the two earners paying the rent and then one is laid off, the people who live on fixed pensions. The people whose buildings acquire new owners who evict in order to 'upgrade.' New rents always end up higher than what was paid before.

If we don't find a way to build rentals we stand in great danger of repeating the disaster that occurred in the mid-1990s in the Silicon Valley and San Francisco during the dotcom bubble. The cost of housing in San Francisco and the Valley soared out of reach of ordinary workers, who were forced to move elsewhere. Soon there were no people to pump gas, serve coffee, receive visitors to offices, sell groceries, teach school.

As recently as this November, Americans who had bought Vancouver condos were flipping them because of the strength of the Canadian dollar, and never-occupied condos continued to increase in value. Although this bring rewards to investors, it does not create a city where people live. The city loses residents and workers, and gains homeless people.

Individual and groups of Anglicans in this diocese already work with homeless people whether as the City of Vancouver's Housing Advocate, the various churches' meal and other ministries, the Street Priest, the 127 Society for Housing, and the Coming Home Society, and those who support these ministries, our various levels of government need to realize that the financial costs of keeping people homeless are higher than the costs of creating homes for them.

So what can we do about all this? I have some suggestions:

What We Can Do

  • Write to the leaders of political parties in the House of Commons reinforcing Bishop Michael's letter, urging they support the creation of a national social housing action plan with appropriate funding.
  • Request of all levels of government that they create incentives to develop market rentals as well so that those who wish to live and work here can afford to do so.
  • Write to the Premier and his Cabinet urging that they provide the long-promised supportive housing and sufficient staff for those who have been released from Riverview Hospital.
  • Remind the Mayor and Council of Vancouver that they made certain housing promises to the Downtown East Side in their bid for the Olympics that have not been entirely carried out.