Sunday, March 25, 2007


Oldtown News
Vancouver, BC

Out of Sight-Out of Mind

There has been much talk lately, as there should be, about Vancouver's homeless situation. A number of protesters have engaged in acts which at times are clearly misguided. A few groups in the Oldtown district have continually pressed for maintaining decrepit SRO's to solve homelessness. They have linked the homeless issue to the upcoming 2010 Olympics. They steal flags and declare the Olympics as a war on the poor. But does this continuous rhetoric really assist the most disadvantaged in our society?

Our Mayor Sam Sullivan doesn't think so and he set about to do something about it. He wanted to reduce homelessness in our city by 50% in time for 2010. He endured the wrath of many activists but he seems committed to ensuring the plight of our homeless are addressed. Unfortunately though, focus has been on our visible homeless problem and scant attention has been paid to invisible homelessness.

Many media outlets of course took notice and began writing stories from this one angle perspective of visible homelessness. This singular lens perspective was primarily orchestrated by Mr. David Eby of PIVOT society. Mr. Eby continually has called for SRO ghetto housing to be maintained and other cohorts working in tandem with him, began parroting the same message.

These poverty professionals claim that with the purchases of SRO's by developers that the folks residing in them will be rendered homeless as developers redevelop these SRO's. They obviously don't get it that SRO's should never be considered homes. They were built originally for tourist use and short-term tourist stays do not necessitate the same type of facilities that longer term residential use requires.

Tenants not wanting to live in these outdated structures have instead resorted to sleeping outdoors. They feel safer there. Which in itself is very tragic. These are the visible homeless.

The city even has its own official homeless relocation coordinator , Ms Judy Graves. She impressively ensures the visible homeless have voice through her. We are not stupid and see the homelessness on our streets. In fact, Ms Graves statistics confirm this for us.

In response, Mayor Sullivan as part of his Civil City visioning hired former City Manager, Ken Dobell, to prepare a report on solutions to the homeless problem. That report has now been presented to council and the public will soon be engaged in public consultations around it.

I have read the report and find it lacking. It appears jaundiced from the get go as it explores homelessness from the visible homeless angle. This is not surprising since the media also write from this one slant perspective. Mr. Eby who has recently become a household name also spins public opinion from this same one angle model.

Don't get me wrong folks. I have concern and sympathy for those who are the visible homeless on our streets, but I see homelessness from a variety of angles and solutions will require a variety of housing options. We need to look at homelessness through a variety of lenses and this isn't happening. After doing some research, I am deeply troubled that there seems to be indifference about our invisible homeless. They are the ones not appearing on official reports and they don't make the six o clock news along with Mr. Eby. I guess one can say the old adage, out of sight-out of mind, applies here. Sad but true.

The invisible homeless include children of homeless parents who may be sleeping on couches of friends. They are abused women with children who have fled violence and are in transitional safe houses. They are Aboriginal citizens who have re-located from dysfunctional life on many reserves and are camping out with relatives in the city. They are single parents who are struggling to get by who access non profit groups during the day but must cope with securing a location at night in order to find rest. They are marginalized women who are camped out in a temporary overnight shelter provided by the Downtown Eastside women's centre. They sleep on workout mats , which are not ideal for restful or peaceful sleep. They are those living in abandoned automobiles. They are gay men who are suffering from AIDS and are Dumpster diving in order to come up with a $15.00 to spend a few nights in the 24 hour gay steambaths in our city. Places where they can stay for a minimum of 6-8 hours. They are exploited youth who exchange sexual services for a place to crash. They are the young Asian female students in the Oldtown district who are victimized in workplaces owned by their own people. They are squeezed together like sardines in what is called student housing. Too often we see other Asian women victims of the Human trafficking phenomena forced to turn numerous tricks and treated as slaves in city licensed massage parlours, which have become their defacto living accommodation..

And the Dobell/Fairbairn report does nothing to acknowledge the above scenarios. and this is how the report dismally fails us.

Leaving the invisible homeless off of our radar screen will only result in systemic failure. A number of poverty groups do not typically represent these invisible homeless populations. The reason is clear. If they did, they would need to be fair, transparent and accountable. Needless to say, its far easier to exploit and take advantage of people with mental illness and drug addictions. These people of course are the visible people we see on our streets.

Finding solutions for the visible homeless population has become a priority. However, the plight of our invisible homeless populations has been given little attention. No City initiated prevention homeless program is in place to ensure homeless children are taken care of. This will only ensure that generational homelessness will impact us for many decades to come. Tragic isn't it?

And why is it that we always seem to react, rather than to be proactive. And the Dobell/Fairbairn report falls into that trap as well. Kind of reminds me of the 4 pillar approach of harm reduction where they forgot about the other 3 pillars and only implemented one pillar. Of course we have witnessed where this has taken us.

Hopefully, my post here might propel people into action. Especially since we are on the hook for huge social costs if we don't acknowledge that addressing homelessness will require us to look at the bigger picture of homelessness. The time to act is now and the ruling NPA municipal government should start by recognizing that the numerous policy reports they have at their perusal have completely disregarded the invisible homeless in our City.

Jamie Lee Hamilton