Photo by Chung Chow
There are no bad guys in this story. But it is complicated.
On unused City of Richmond land, in the East Richmond community of Hamilton, tucked behind a chain-link fence and a blackberry hedge, sit six tents of varying quality and condition.
It is home to six people and at least one dog. While her owner wasn’t comfortable giving his name, he was comfortable with The Sentinel taking his beloved dog’s picture. Her name is Heidi, she’s 12 and has a grey muzzle, and came over for a cuddle.
Heidi’s owner lives in a tent and he’s dug a ditch around it to drain the previous night’s torrential rain away. He wore a ball cap that said, “Fifty Ones.” He says he cannot find a place to live because he has a dog; it’s hard to find a place to rent that he can afford that allows a dog.
“Without a safe place to leave Heidi, I can’t go out to work.” She is his source of warmth and contact.
He also spoke of the troubles he’s had with PTSD, anxiety and other similar issues, that medicine only turned him into a zombie and made him gain weight.
James came along on his bike. “I built that bike from scratch myself. It has a super light frame and I put big tires on it.”
He has two part-time jobs, one delivering books and magazines to larger stores, the other job at a local corner store sweeping up and doing handyman jobs.
“It’s a mixture of cash and credit. The credit means I can buy food and cigarettes from the store. Sometimes I go to the owner’s house and do some yard work.”
They both spoke of Alex, who was out, working on the tugboats. They say Alex had worked three 12-and-a-half-hour days that week on the tugs but still, even though he made good money, Alex couldn’t find a place to live.
A little later, Dave came along.
With his left hand clenched in an uncontrollable spasm so tight the skin was shiny, and the tips of two fingers on his right hand missing, Dave said he’d had nerve damage that caused both problems with his hands.
After speaking with these men, hearing from them in their own words about their physical and mental health challenges, it’s clear they have complex medical needs.
Supportive housing would offer the home, the care and the independence they need. It means they would have a safe, clean apartment to live in, with ongoing help for their medical problems, whether they are physical, mental or both.
The City of Richmond is working to find this group of six people the homes they need, but it takes time. There is such a shortage of supportive housing.
In the mean time, the city drops by regularly. A piece of paper on the ground, a civic inspection notice, showed they’d been by recently. It stated, “No more than six tents.”
All three men said the city, the RCMP and Richmond Fire-Rescue had been respectful. The fire department drops in twice each week and has distributed fire extinguishers to each tent.
Fire, when you have no other way to heat, can be a big risk for the occupants. For anyone already in precarious health, even small burns can be killers or lead to amputations, which in turn cost the person and the health care system dearly.
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie says when he grew up in Vancouver, he “didn’t see homeless people on the streets. It’s an important social issue.”
Those with complex medical issues like Dave, James and Fifty Ones have been growing in visibility since they are no longer forced to live in locked institutions. The community support they need is overloaded, as is the waiting list for the housing they need.
All three men said they would not live in a single room occupancy hotel in the Downtown Eastside describing them as, “Full of drug addicts, bugs and sh*t.” No one who has visited one of the DTES’s typical SROs wants to live there.
Homeless shelters offer no place to keep their few possessions, places to stay during the day or a place for pets. Pets become all the more important when you have no one to cuddle, to talk to, or to offer warmth on a cold night.
The cost of homelessness to taxpayers is surprisingly vast. The Mental Health Commission of Canada, funded by Health Canada, has studied homelessness in depth, in many cities, including Vancouver.
The Vancouver At Home (VAH) study is part of the national At Home/Chez Soi project investigating solutions to homelessness among people with complex medical needs, including mental health issues.
In the Lower Mainland, the study showed that first you have to give people safe, supportive housing—it’s called the Housing First program—then you can address their other needs. People without a home cannot take their meds with clean water, cannot get to doctor’s appointments and cannot even receive mail to obtain a health care card or any other identification.
Because living without a home means more illness, increased emergency services due to ill health and lack of a family physician or a way to get to one, the federal study found for each person without a home, it costs taxpayers $53,144 every year.
With Great Vancouver’s homeless tally for 2017 sitting at 3,605—of which 119 were children—and with that number being an underestimate according to some advocates for the homeless, that means a total annual cost to taxpayers of $191,584,120.
Supportive housing can save over 85 per cent of that $191 million. Kindness is cost effective.
The study has numbers to back that up; the Housing First attitude saves money.
The study concluded that the cost of having a person in supportive housing first and foremost would then cost $28,282 per person, per year for people who are high needs. For those with moderate needs, that cost of supportive housing drops even further to $15,952 per person annually.
The report said: “Over the two-year follow-up period, every $10 invested in Housing First services resulted in an average savings of $8.55 for high-needs participants.”
For the six people living rough in Richmond’s Hamilton area, they don’t want to be living there, living in tents, living without showers, or toilets, or safe running water.
“I just need a clean room,” James said, “with hot water and a shower. I’m not picky. I don’t need a lot.”
Dave’s wish list is even more modest: “Just a roof over my head.”
While the cost of housing in the region makes finding a home difficult for everyone, for these six people their housing needs are more complex, just like their medical needs.
What’s being done
The City of Richmond is clear, they are working hard behind the scenes to find supportive housing for this group. But it is taking time.
While city politicians have not toured the field, they are quietly pulling out all the stops to move James, Alex, Dave, Heidi, Fifty Onesand their tent-dwelling neighbours into supportive homes as quickly as possible.
While the city is being as proactive as possible, the reality is there are no quick solutions.
The residents who live in homes in the area, are understandably not too keen on having people who cannot shower, bath or use toilets on a regular basis, living nearby. They fear the people who have moved into their neighbourhood. Those living in homes in the area want the tent-dwellers moved out immediately.
“I think it’s a great tragedy of our time that everywhere you go there are people who are homeless,” says Mayor Brodie.
“Their lives must be very difficult but there are many factors on every side that have to be considered.”
Brodie points to the local home owners’ side too: “I can say very clearly that it’s not something that people would want across the street from their houses. That’s why the work of the city in terms of making sure the site is safe and that it’s clean and that the occupants of the tent are respectful is really important.”
“I have kept in close touch,” Brodie said, “with various service staff who have been monitoring the situation. There are regular visits from our people who are concerned with the life-safety issues. They have all been very, very active in terms of monitoring this situation and working with the folks who are occupying these tents.”
The mayor says the city offers the tent-dwellers the free use of the washrooms and shower facilities at the nearby Hamilton Community Centre. While it’s a walk to the washroom that few would want to have to make in the night, it is a temporary compromise until the city find supportive housing.
Brodie says the city has established good dialogue with the occupants and they concur.
But, he stresses, “it’s not an easy situation especially when our emergency shelter is not open yet, nor is the (temporary) modular housing so, we are working with the group and doing everything we can.”
Jas Johal, MLA for the Hamilton area, said Friday that all levels of government are working together to find homes for the people living in tents on city land at 23560 Westminster Hwy., a rectangle of grassy land bisected diagonally by the freeway to the Queensborough Bridge.
The fenced piece of city land was chosen by the six tent-dwellers when their previous camping spot near Shelter Island Marina saw vandalism that destroyed each tent systematically.
When asked whom they suspected of slashing their homes, one resident of the new tent gathering said the people at the marina had been the most vocal in their opposition to the people living in tents nearby.
The city has been clear: a recent court case says the municipality cannot evict the tent dwellers living on civic land. It is against the law. So, now they must find a solution that works for everyone. The best and, in practical terms the only solution, is supportive housing.
Johal says all parties are working to find the necessary supportive housing for those living in the tents, many of whom have at least part-time jobs. At least one has close to full-time employment working on the tugboats, according to one resident.
Johal also stated that people living in houses nearby objected to the six tents on city property.
He said, “We are prepared to pay up to $2,000 per month.”
Local MP Joe Peschisolido has also toured the area, speaking to those who live in houses and has offered to speak with the City of Richmond as it falls within their jurisdiction.
Brodie says he sees the recently-approved temporary modular housing as an important part of the solution as “it outlines the importance of housing from the economic point of view, not to mention human compassion.”
So, the hunt for appropriate housing continues.
All sides agree, it should be sooner rather than later.