Without a Place

TEXT Patrick Stewart

Homelessness is very big business in Canada. Millions of dollars are spent each year by all sectors of society working to alleviate the agony of thousands of Canadians who live on the streets of our cities, towns, villages and rural areas. How can people be homeless in Canada? Are we not one of the richest countries in the world? Is it for a lack of caring? Have we become insensitive or just impotent to the injustice in this country? Do we continue to be part of the problem or do we want to be part of the solution?

We live in a country that has no national policy to end homelessness. The current policy speaks of “addressing” and “alleviating” homelessness, but not ending it. There is no political will in this country to deal with the inhumanity of homelessness. In Canada, housing is not a right. This has to change.

As an architect practicing in British Columbia, I am surprised to see and hear about the deaths of homeless people on our city streets. What can I do as an architect? What can the profession do? What should the profession be doing? So many questions and no simple answers.

According to the latest homeless count by the Greater Vancouver Regional District, though only 2% of the population of British Columbia is Aboriginal, they make up over 30% of the homeless population.1 Aboriginal people are over-represented among the homeless and those at risk of being homeless. As of last year in British Columbia, where only 9% of the child population is Aboriginal, 49% of the children in care are Aboriginal. Also, 42% of the children in custody are Aboriginal.2 Unfortunately, the Aboriginal community does not receive a proportional share of the funding to deal with the issue within its own community. In fact, there is not one Aboriginal-owned and -run shelter in Vancouver. Most of the funding to the Aboriginal community has been allocated only for support services. There are few capital projects and they are geared more for longer-term tenure once a person has successfully transitioned off the street. One such building is the 14-unit second-stage housing project in East Vancouver called “Spirit Way” which was completed in 2000 and designed by Linda Baker Architect.

In Canada, urban aboriginal policy is but a pilot project called the Urban Aboriginal Strategy. It began in 1998 and last year had pilot projects in 12 cities across Canada. As a strategy, we have yet to hear of any impact on policy. For example, census data-based funding consistently underfunds Aboriginal service providers. Need-based funding for Aboriginal service providers is a better reflection of what is required. How do we make this happen?

By the time you read this article, British Columbia will have faced an Emergency Homelessness Alert. The Aboriginal Homelessness Steering Committee (AHSC) for Greater Vancouver issued the emergency alert due to an imminent gap in funding. A press release and press conference made the public aware of the impending closures of support services to the homeless and those at risk of being homeless. The resulting support was immediate and vocal. Within 48 hours of the press release and 24 hours after the press conference, Human Resources Development Canada sent a message to the AHSC that there would be no gap in funding.

The Aboriginal Homelessness Steering Committee for Greater Vancouver represents 21 Aboriginal service providers delivering support services to people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. These service providers were faced with a gap in funding between the cancelled National Homelessness Initiative and the start of the newly announced Homelessness Partnering Strategy.

The challenge is to shake things up. The status quo is not acceptable. Risk-taking and leadership are qualities that architects need to express. Challenge your City Hall to act, and be a partner in the solution. Focus on community dialogue. It is amazing what a concerted effort by a concerned citizenry can accomplish.

1 GVRD Homeless Count, 2005.

2 BC Budget 2006: “in care” refers to those children who are in foster care whereas “in custody” includes youth who are placed in a detention-type facility.

Patrick Reid Stewart, MAIBC, LEED AP is the first Aboriginal President of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia. He is a member of the Nisga’a Nation. He is also Chair of the Aboriginal Homelessness Steering Committee for Greater Vancouver and principal of Patrick R. Stewart Architect in Chilliwack, BC.