photos: Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver’s first-ever in-house homeless advocate, sits beside Megaphone’s executive director Sean Condon at the press conference announcing the number of homeless people’s deaths in 2015. Photo: Stefania Seccia

Where are you from?

Viewpoints: Vancouver's former homeless advocate dispels a poverty myth

Get on your megaphone

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By Judy Graves


"Where do you come from?"

This is a question we frequently ask of our friends, neighbours, and colleagues. Answers in Vancouver are always interesting. Many of us were not born here: we've come here from all over Canada and from every part of the world.

Whether we are wealthy and over-housed, middle class and housed by the skin of our teeth, or unhoused and living in streets and shelters, the chances are, the person we are chatting with has migrated to Vancouver.

This migration is part of a worldwide trend called urbanization that has been going on for at least 100 years. Before the First World War, about four per cent of the world's population lived in cities. In 2016, about 54 per cent of the world's population are living in cities, and that percentage grows every year.

We don't just move into cities but we move between cities, so wherever we travel in the world, we are likely to find people from Vancouver living there. Whether rich or impoverished, Vancouver attracts people of all stripes, creeds, and backgrounds.

Vancouver isn’t special
I've observed this often, among people who live outside. Whenever I travel, as soon as I've checked into a hotel I go out into the streets to ask the people who live rough about life in their streets, about food lineups, and shelters, about drugs and detox, what's working for them and what's not. In Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Whitehorse, Victoria, Vernon, Kamloops and Kelowna, I've found myself talking to people from Vancouver who are sleeping in the streets.

We will soon have results from the national count of homelessness. Not everyone is coming to Vancouver. You will see that more people are without housing in Toronto, Edmonton, and Calgary, than are without housing in Vancouver. And people in every municipality in Canada are experiencing homelessness.

There has been much in the media recently about homeless people coming to the Downtown Eastside (DTES) from other parts of the country for services. But it really doesn't work that way. The world's wealthiest come to Vancouver in hope of finding better housing and services. The rest of us know we'd really be better off almost anywhere else. But we come here anyway, as part of the great migration.

This movement into the DTES of very low-income newcomers is not a recent phenomenon. This has been happening since the city was built. Our archives are full of the history of shantytowns near the area we now call the DTES.

The revolving door
From the 1970s to 1990s, the city did surveys of the tenants living in single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) in the DTES and South Granville areas. The early surveys can't be found, but the last one from 1991 reports that 26 per cent of the people living in SROs had lived here less than a year; 17 per cent had been in the area less than six months.

In 2004, Dana Beatson, for her University of B.C.’s school of community and regional planning master's thesis, tracked welfare files by postal code as they moved into and out of the DTES over a two-year period. Beatson found that people whose welfare files did not convert to the "disability" designation moved on, away from the DTES, often to another city or province. Those who were disabled, stayed.

Given this history and perplexed about what to do, I am reminded of the wisdom of Victoria Garland, director of the city's housing and properties department during the 1990s. Garland said when you build a new building, it is a mistake to put in the outdoor walkways where you think they should go. She says, "Wait a year. You'll be able to see where people have been walking, pave the walkways where people walk. You'll never get them to walk where you think they should. They'll just ruin the grass."

Applying this wisdom to the DTES, this would mean building more housing and services there for the people who will continue to migrate to the DTES as the population of Vancouver organically grows. For more than 100 years, people with low incomes have been beating a path into the DTES. We need to respect their path.

Where we come from is beside the point. Who we are, what we’re going through, and how we can help are the more important questions to ask.

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