Vancouver council votes to declare homelessness emergency

Tents are seen in Oppenheimer Park in this image from Aug. 7, 2019.

Vancouver's city council has voted in favour of declaring a homelessness emergency in the city.

The decision was made Wednesday, after two hours of debate and discussion involving members of the public. The motion was initially brought forward by Coun. Jean Swanson and Coun. Pete Fry and passed unanimously after some amendments. 

According to Swanson and Fry's motion, at least 2,223 people were counted as homeless across Vancouver in 2019 and 7,655 across the province. 

But that wasn't always the case, Swanson said. 

"I remember when you could walk down the street in the Downtown Eastside and you wouldn't see anybody sleeping on the street," she said, adding that in the 1970s and 1980s there was more support to build social housing from the federal government. 

"What we have to do is get the senior governments back into housing and poverty in a way they used to be but aren't now."

Along with the declaration, the motion included several measures to address homelessness including urging those higher levels of government to take action, raising social assistance shelter rates and recommending vacancy control to help preserve lower rent accommodation. 

Swanson said the vacancy control recommendation would prohibit landlords of lower rent accommodations from raising rent significantly between tenancies. 

"That's absolutely key," she said. "What's happening right now is whenever somebody moves out of a lowish rent place, the rent is raised to market value."

But Swanson and Fry's motion wasn't accepted wholeheartedly. One change included voting on the vacancy control issue separately, but that still passed in the end with Coun. Melissa De Genova, Coun. Sarah Kirby-Young and Mayor Kennedy Stewart voting against it. 

However, another amendment included removing a direction to city staff to include a target of finding housing for at least 80 per cent of counted homeless people within three years. 

"I'm a little bit irritated and mad about that," Swanson said. "It doesn't necessarily mean that we won't do what we need to do, but it took the teeth out of us doing what we need to."