Editorial: Even small spaces are better than sleeping on the street

Vancouver Sun
October 18, 2006
When faced with pressing social problems such as drug addiction, prostitution or homelessness, we’re often confronted with a utopian mentality, one that sees the complete and immediate eradication of such problems as the only solution.

During the debates about Vancouver’s supervised injection facility, this mentality was in full view: Despite the site’s potential to reduce transmission of blood-borne diseases and to stabilize drug users, utopians opposed the site because, they argued, it would not lead directly to abstinence.
Similarly, those possessed of a utopian mindset oppose harm reduction measures related to prostitution, because such measures don’t necessarily bring about an immediate and final end to the world’s oldest profession.

Now, with the Non-Partisan Association councillors suggesting some novel proposals to alleviate Vancouver’s homelessness problem, we see the utopian attitude once again rearing its head.
Among the proposals, the councillors suggest that dormitory-style housing be considered as one way of getting people off the streets or out of the city’s “Third World” residential hotels.
Currently, the city’s minimum standard for self-contained units is 400 square feet, with permission in some cases to go down to 320 square feet. But the councillors would like to see different forms of housing down to 100 square feet. These units would be similar to university dormitories, where people have their own spaces, but share amenities such as kitchens and bathrooms.

Vision Vancouver Coun. Heather Deal opposes the suggestion, saying, “That’s like stacking [people] like cordwood.” Even if that’s true, it still seems a lot better than leaving people out in the cold. And what is the alternative?

Vancouver has been beset by a serious homelessness problem for decades, and it’s far from solved. The city has failed to achieve its own goal of adding 800 new units of social housing a year — indeed it has only 292 units under construction.

Part of the reason for the failure is the cost of developing such housing: Mayor Sam Sullivan notes, for example, that a project being built on East Hastings is costing $200,000 a unit because it has to be built to the existing guidelines. Yet if the units were smaller, four or five units could be built for the same price tag.

Clearly, our current methods for solving the homelessness problem are inadequate, and we are in need of more creative solutions. Providing tax breaks to developers who provide social housing is one such solution — and one suggested by the NPA councillors — but it is not enough.
Instead, we must be open to all suggestions — including ones that are less than utopian — if we’re ever to get a handle on the problem.

Permitting smaller units is one less than utopian suggestion, but it could help to stabilize otherwise homeless people by providing them with an address and a place to live. It is not ideal — and we must not lose sight of that fact, as we must continue searching for better options — but it is better than nothing, which is what homeless people have right now.