Homelessness in Vancouver won't end with COVID-19, say advocates urging forever services, not fleeting aid

·3 min read

Stanley Woodvine has been homeless in Vancouver for more than 15 years and while policy-makers at every government level scramble to find housing solutions for people living outside during the pandemic, he says it is critical to remember homelessness will not disappear when COVID-19 does and permanent, not band-aid solutions, are needed.

There are currently about 200 people living in Vancouver's lastest homeless encampment at Strathcona Park, and an unknown number sleeping elsewhere across the city. They have access to very limited facilities where they are welcome to use the toilet, take a shower or warm up from the cold.

Temporary washroom facilities have now been set up in the park by city staff, and temporary warming shelters have opened in various neighbourhoods in advance of what is expected to be a frigid weekend with predicted snowfall.

But as Woodvine told CBC this week, temporary infrastructure will never be enough for people who have forever needs.

"I do not believe that you should treat homelessness as an emergency because that assumes that you could end the emergency," he said.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

He said he watches people try to stay warm at night with tea candles, that the cold damp of Vancouver makes it hard not to feel frozen if you are wet, and that he struggles to find showers in the morning so he can begin his work day like anyone else.

"If you actually made homelessness practical ... people could [be] homeless and actually sustain themselves," said Woodvine.

Infrastructure where people could stay warm and wash off could also be lifesaving.

On Friday, Jonathan Gormick, public information officer for Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service, told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition, that crews have responded to almost 30 fires at Strathcona Park since November, as people try to keep themselves warm with makeshift stoves and open flames.

One man, said Gormick, remains in hospital with severe burns to his upper body.

"Unfortunately, at some point it will be worse. And we certainly don't want to lose a life over this." said Gormick.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

He echoed Woodvine's sentiment that homelessness is never going to end, so it's time to start creating facilities and services that help people better manage that reality.

"There are people who willfully choose that they don't want to be sheltered or housed, and that's their choice," said Gormick.

He said he understands the city is strapped financially because of the pandemic, and that for many, stable housing solutions are what is needed, but for those in need now and those who choose not to accept shelter, the city needs to find partners and "lasting solutions."

Local businesses can help

In the meantime, Meenakshi Mannoe, criminalization and policing campaigner at Pivot Legal Society, says it is vital that businesses in the city step up to help people in need in their neighbourhood.

She joined Gloria Macarenko, the host of CBC's On The Coast, Thursday to discuss meeting homeless needs in the city, after management of an East Vancouver coffee shop told CBC News staff were dealing with a barrage of inappropriate behaviour from homeless people using their washroom.

"If they're part of a community, that is going to mean that there's lots of people in the community. There are people who have different needs. There are some folks that might need to use your bathroom and is it really such a hardship?" asked Mannoe.

Tap the audio link below to hear the complete interview with Meenakshi Mannoe and to listen to callers to On The Coast share their personal experiences with homelessness: