25 September 2009

Those Darn Homeless and "Affordable Housing"

Seems BC is intent upon locking up people who refuse shelter accommodation. However, as Jody Patterson points out, there are a whole lot of reasons having nothing to do with mental illness to be unpersuaded by shelter amenities.

Then there are the problems of establishing permanent housing, which I discuss further below. (Hint: Affordability isn't the problem.)

About sheltering street people,

sometimes, it's as simple as not being able to bear the thought of lying on a mat in a big room with 70 or 80 other troubled souls trying to make it through the night in noisy, restless fashion. Or about having no place to leave your cart without all your worldly belongings being stolen by the morning, or another night of waiting in line outside the shelter just to find out there are no beds left, by which time all the good outdoor sleeping spots are long gone.

It's about having a spouse and wanting to sleep like a couple, or having a pet that you can't possibly leave outside alone in the cold. When our region's "cold wet weather" protocol kicks in - and believe me, it's damn cold and wet before that happens - only one adult emergency shelter, the one at St. John the Divine, welcomes couples and pets.

Then there's a whole other group of resisters with severe addictions, whose sleep/wake cycles are so completely out of whack that the idea of lying down quietly at night for eight hours isn't even an option.

Some have mental-health issues that keep them out of shelters, although not many in my experience, and certainly not enough to give Coleman the quick street cleanup he's envisioning. There's also a tiny group who would actually choose to live outside no matter what: Modern-day hermits, maybe 32 people in all in our region.

One positive solution is already here, in Vancouver. It has nothing to do with arresting people or having them corralled by police and left at shelters that may have no room for them.

The City of Vancouver has had amazing success with such populations using a new kind of shelter piloted late last year. None of it has required arresting people.

The goal of the project was to lure resisters inside by providing shelter with a difference - locked spaces for carts, couples and pets allowed, a 24-hour TV room to accommodate the sleepless, the dignity of booking another night before you left the shelter rather than having to line up much later in the day and hope for the best.

The empty buildings used for the shelters were pulled together quickly and on the cheap, with an operating cost of roughly $1.5 million for the three-month pilot. All were located in areas where people were already sleeping.

...More than 500 people who'd previously refused to use shelters came inside within a few days of the shelters opening last December.

People who are homeless have as much right to choice and dignity as anyone else. Of the choices they might make, how hard is it to imagine yourself refusing to be separated from your spouse or your pet or your entire worldly belongings?

It's not rocket science to reduce homelessness only to those people who would choose it as a lifestyle (many of whom reject the 'homeless' label).

Temporary measures include permitting and supporting tent cities, and providing serviced parking areas for people whose homes are on wheels (cars, trailers).

Permanent solutions must begin by changing the municipal by-laws that effectively enshrine NIMBYism. In few communities is it possible under current laws for the construction of a village of tiny houses. In my own community, laneway housing is still not permitted, despite Vancouver's recent example. (Regarding the latter, $150,000 to $200,000, which includes BC Hydro servicing, are the costs typically cited for the construction of a tiny house on existing property. The City of Vancouver is allowing these laneway houses only to be rented. Why would property owners bother? The costs cited are absurd. A tiny house can be built for one-tenth the price.)

The tiny house movement has coincided with the green movement. Downsizing is in vogue. Municipal laws and other regulations pertaining to buying property and house construction haven't kept up.

The problem of 'affordable housing' isn't one of lack of innovative ideas for shelter materials, construction and community design. The developers are out there who would build these things.

The problem isn't affordability of the shelters themselves. People in the US are building their own homes for NOTHING, from recycled scraps, from shipping containers, from old railway cars. Others are buying materials for under $3,000. Still others buy their tiny houses pre-built for under $25,000. Then there is the mobile home option: fifth wheels and other trailers. Too many used trailers to count sit unoccupied on RV dealer lots.

In other words, the problem isn't the HOUSING.

The problem is systemic NIMBYism, the failure of municipalities to accommodate changing community needs, the lack of will on the part of politicians at all levels to open their eyes and see where the problems truly lie, and the "I'm all right" attitude that blinds too many residents from seeing the need for change.

The problem is the LAND on which to place the housing, land whose use is not restricted by municipal laws. The problem is ALLOWABLE housing.

The problem has NOTHING TO DO WITH AFFORDABILITY and EVERYTHING to do with keeping 'those people' out.

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