The Woodwards "Squat" prior to and after the November 16, 2002 civic election is symptomatic of a much larger homeless problem in Vancouver. There are people sleeping under the north end of the Granville Street Bridge, south end of the Burrard Bridge, in Stanley Park, in Pacific Spirit Park, in many downtown doorways and vacant buildings and elsewhere where they can get some shelter from the cold and wet weather. During the squat, city officials actually recommended that the desperate go to Woodwards if they couldn't find a bed in emergency shelters because it was relatively safe and some services were available.
"Where do people go when the city shelters have no space and their money has run out?"
In September, the Lookout Downtown shelter on Alexander Street had no choice but to turn away 332 people, a much higher number than they have ever rejected in any other previous month. The Yukon shelter, which is located further from the Downtown Eastside, turned down a similar number. A recent Greater Vancouver regional district study estimates that in any given 24-hour period there are around 1,100 homeless people in the region. One could conclude that this is not a large number of people out of a population of 2 million but in a wealthy society like Greater Vancouver no one should be left without the opportunity for a roof over his or her head.
It is estimated that about 12% of homeless are on heroine or other hard drugs, while 50% have some mental handicap: both require special accommodation, with or without treatment. A number are alcoholics or have some other illness that make them difficult to house. Perhaps as many as 25% are youth and the down and out in need of short term accommodation and help getting back on their feet.
Without a permanent address it is difficult for a homeless person to qualify for welfare assistance. Under the B.C. Employment and Assistance program, those deemed employable can only collect for two years out of every five. On April 2, 2004, all such people who have received welfare for the past 24 months will be struck from the books. This is an incentive for some homeless to get training and find a job of some sort. If they knew they had a secure roof over their heads, more would try.
Even if the provincial government dramatically increased the $4 million available yearly to support traditional shelters there still would be the need for more temporary transitional shelter for the increasing number of homeless who are turned away. There is a need for some innovative thinking.
One idea for temporary accommodation is to convert unused metal shipping containers into short term or maybe up to a year or two accommodation for the homeless who want training or can find some part time employment while they get on their feet. This is not a wild idea and it could be implemented on a small parcel of city property very quickly if the authorities wanted it to happen. Done quickly, it could even accommodate some of the Woodwards squatters.
Metal shipping containers are currently used in Greater Vancouver for various types of temporary and inexpensive storage and office accommodation. Mike Owen, the owner of Mike's Marina on River Road West in Delta was one of the first entrepreneurs in the area to use these 8' wide by 8' 5" high by 40' long surplus structures. By adding doors and windows and finishing off the inside of the containers he has provided himself with excellent office accommodation for his recycling and storage business. He has also used the containers for rental storage lockers and work space.
Pictures of Mike's converted shipping containers
The author and Architect Rick Balfour believe that it would be possible to create one or two small urban villages on city owned property using shipping container structures. The following three sketches illustrate how up to 160 people could be accommodated on an acre of land at minimal cost. Of course, this accommodation would not be a permanent solution and the villages would have to be well managed to avoid problems. This accommodation is a step up from a tent campground and does not in any way replace the need more permanent accommodation. John Gaspardy, a manager of a hotel facility that offers inexpensive accommodation in the downtown area says "No drugs, no alcohol are allowed ..residents know the way it works."
It should be noted that such an innovative approach is not new. David Crombie, mayor of Toronto during the seventies and eighties, suggested that Toronto's army of homeless could be housed in metal garden sheds which could be purchased for a few hundred dollars each, equipped with a lock, heater and sleeping gear, and placed in the city's parks. Needless to say, the proposal got short shift, and another generation of homeless are without adequate shelter.
Three sketches by Urban Futures Group
Other Structural Options
Canadian Rockport Homes (see Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.) offers quality, affordable, modular homes for social housing. With the support of the Canadian government, Rockport Homes is currently negotiating contracts in several countries to provide a massive quantity of housing units. Rockport is providing the technology and management skills mainly to Third World countries where the need for housing far exceeds the ability of local contractors to meet the demand.
The original concept is based on Habitat concept designed by Architect Moshe Safdie for the 1967 Habitat Exposition in Montreal. The technology has been used to build several demonstration projects in Vancouver and the company is now ready for production on a large scale where quantities merit the building of manufacturing facilities. Given the right incentives, Nelson Riis, VP of Investor and Government Relations, says "local projects can be considered. This technology is quite suitable for building the athletes accommodation for the 1010 Winter Olympics." This possibility could be an excellent venture for the federal, provincial and local governments of Vancouver and Whistler to consider. It would stimulate local jobs and be an opportunity to export technology world wide. Creating a small urban village for the homeless would be an excellent test for the technology.
picture of the Rockport Homes modular plant in Surrey
Once again, thanks to Graham Murchie for editing and text suggestions.