Friday, February 01, 2008


Oldtown News
Vancouver, BC


As many of us have learned, a homeless couple-- while trying to stay warm in a doorway that they had set up as their sleeping quarters on the west side--caught on fire--most likely due to a malfunctioning camper stove which was being used to protect them from the cold and perhaps freezing to death.

As they ran into an intersection at 5th and Columbia, on fire, crying out for help and as horrified onlookers watched, one of them now hovers near death and the other probably scarred for life. Sadly, this tragedy re-inforces that as a society we are continuing to fail those most vulnerable and at-risk.

The reasons for homelessness are complex and varied. We know that, however, a major contributing factor that we must share as a society has become the widespread indifference and neglect to the plight of those less fortunate in our City.

Just yesterday, council was debating whether we need more shelters for the homeless. There seemed to be agreement that yes we do but this serious problem than became bogged down in politics. The warring factions on Council--Vision and NPA-- shamelessly began playing the blame game while pointing their fingers at each other and to no surprise, no solutions were arrived at.

Ms Audrey LaFerriere, a senior women who resides in Strathcona was at council speaking about the need for a 24 hour shelter. Unfortunately, she was supporting a proposal by DERA to take over Storyeum, a huge city-owned property that in my opinion, would not be suitable as a shelter. Moreover, DERA which has engaged in many criminal acts, would be the worst possible group to provide survival services to the needy and homeless.

Ms LaFerriere's efforts though are valid and as we struggle to address homelessness, the City must unite in how best to proceed in addressing homelessness which as we know from the tragedy which befell this homeless couple, can have dire and tragic consequences.

There is no doubt in my mind that many of our homeless population besides living in poverty have serious alcohol and drug problems. Many of this population are the untreated mentally ill and while many other citizens cannot find affordable, safe housing and rather than living in one of our rodent-infested and unsafe SRO's, they have chosen the street as a last option.

Living on the street is not ideal. Besides contending with the harsh weather elements, the dirty cold pavements and rampant predators, the social & environmental hazzards are far too great and we shouldn't be placing our most at-risk citizens in harms way.

That is not to say that those who are homeless should just expect others to fix the problem. Our homeless need to also address factors in their lives which contribute to their homelessness.

Policy makers togeher with the homeless must work together to find acceptable humane approaches which addresses from a holistic perspective, the various needs of this community.

With Vancouver becoming increasingly unaffordable and according to City of Vancouver Housing and Homeless expert, Judy Graves, our homelessness is rising and we must act in the short-term for what will be longer-term solutions.

Ms Graves states that our temporary cold wet-weather beds which are opened when the weather hovers near zero, are not at full capacity. Yet these beds are primarily located in the dangerous Downtown Eastside and many of the homeless don't wish to be located in this particular area and can you blame them.

Councillor Elizabeth Ball, even shared a personal story of coming into contact with a homeless women last week on Dunbar street who when provided assistance by Ms Ball, stated she wasn't willing to go into the horrible Downtown Eastside for this assistance.

While safe, affordable permanent housing is far more ideal than temporary shelters, perhaps now is the time to explore creating a permanent shelter which is open 24 hours a day which comes with appropriate resources and properly trained staff.

We need to be careful about how we create charitable endeavors. I wouldn't want us to create a sub-standard setting which in my opinion, food banks did to address hunger and poverty. This only further entrenches poverty and a way of life that isn't dignified, humane or sustainable.

We must be cognizent of not repeating this same mistake with our homeless citizens.

Now though seems like a good time for the City of Vancouver, in collaboration with the provincial and federal governments to set up a pilot-project which explores whether a permanent 24/7 shelter benefits people over the longer-term.

We do not want to set up a situation which harms anyone. This horrendous situation of the set-on-fire couple rams home to us, how serious and what the dire consequences of homelessness can be.

We need to think outside the box and the idea of a 24/7 shelter proposed by Ms LaFerriere if tweaked properly, may have merit.

Jamie Lee Hamilton