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We need safer homeless shelters, not just more of them

The tent cities cropping up in Vancouver point to a dark truth about shelters and social housing

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Right now, there are cities springing up within cities. The walls in these spaces are made of nylon and canvas rather than anything like brick, but in some ways, they’re stronger shelters than anything their predecessors have given to their less-privileged denizens.

They’re tent cities, and Vancouver wants nothing to do with them.

A tent city is essentially a gathering of tents as temporary residences set up by displaced people. A little over a week ago, a new tent city at 950 Main Street in the Downtown Eastside caught media attention: its organizers told CBC News that they wanted the parties participating in the upcoming electoral race to take notice and remember the growing homelessness problem in Vancouver.

As it normally does, Vancouver has told the residents of the tent city to leave, and that they’re violating the law. But where would the City of Vancouver like them to go?

We all know Vancouver apparently doesn’t have enough social housing to go around, but an interesting thing to note is this piece of commentary from Stephen Robinson, a resident of a then-recent tent city, seven months ago: as the CBC reported at the time, “He feels safer living in a tent than in a shelter.”

Underneath the struggle to introduce more shelters, there’s a more important battle to fight: making sure the spaces we try to provide people are actually safe places to be. We — and by that I mean both the average person and our governments — need to take notice of this stuff, take the words of those affected by homelessness seriously, and take some action.

Robinson’s is a sentiment echoed by many who’ve lived in shelters, or who’ve chosen to sleep in the streets specifically out of fear of the goings-on at shelters. Besides Robinson’s statements about theft, which often goes ignored by staff, people fear “violent” and otherwise abusive behaviour from other residents.

To an extent, disputes between residents of shelters are unavoidable. But such places should have staff who are properly trained to break up fights, to provide resources for less emotionally stable inhabitants, and to enforce rules that protect residents.

I understand that it’s difficult to navigate such situations, which often come down to “he-said-she-said” scenarios. But it’s absolutely critical to at least try to foster an environment that feels safe enough for someone to choose it over sleeping the streets.

Robinson also commented on the apathy of staff, a criticism true to many forms of shelter and supportive housing in the area. In 2015, a woman in a supportive housing building died alone in her room, and wasn’t found until enough people complained about a “stench” — and even then, the building initially refused to so much as check on the room.

Better documentation of those staying in your building is important, for obvious reasons. We can’t half-ass providing a public service — if we want to help people, let’s go all the way. Make it clear that you actually care who the people you’re hosting are, and answer the concerns of tenants instead of brushing them aside. I get that this requires more staff, and that’s hard, but if a person can lie rotting in a room without anyone realizing it, you have to realize you’re failing to meet a very basic standard.

There’s no point going to a shelter that doesn’t care what happens to you — as many see it, at least outside you know to take care of yourself and to choose who you trust your safety with. In a setting where you don’t decide who you share your living space with, you need the assurance that you will be safeguarded.

The organizers of the 950 Main Street tent city say that they’re calling for the new government to introduce 10, 000 social housing units to the city per year. Let’s make sure those units are worth living in.

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