Vancouver is going ahead with a $1.5-million project to set up 10 “tiny shelters” for homeless people in a parking lot adjacent to an existing shelter located in a former storage building on Terminal Avenue.
City council voted 9-2 Wednesday to approve the 100 sq. foot structures, which are expected to be built and placed on the fenced-in lot by the fall.
Each unit will be equipped with heating and air conditioning and be big enough to accommodate two people.
The two-year experiment, or pilot project, is the first of its kind in Vancouver.
“The real solution, of course, is permanent homes with washrooms and cooking facilities in neighbourhoods in communities,” said Coun. Christine Boyle during the two-hour debate. “But doing this is better than not doing this, and it will make a difference for those who get to move in.”
Although city staff have said they are seeking senior government money for the project, the city is currently on the hook for the $1.5 million cost, which became the focus of the council debate.
“This is a very expensive pilot, and it will set a precedent of the approach that the city is going to take to tiny homes going forward,” said Coun. Colleen Hardwick, who joined Coun. Melissa De Genova in voting against the proposal.
“We've heard about the excessive downloading from the senior levels of government, and here we are again.”
Both councillors made it clear that more options are needed to get people off the streets.
But each of them emphasized the cost to the city, with no guarantee the provincial or federal governments will contribute funds before the experiment ends in two years.
“When I look at the numbers that are being attributed to [the project], it seems like you've got $75,000 per year allocated to each of those people, between capital and an operating [funds],” Hardwick said.
De Genova calculated it was going to cost $6,250 a month per person.
“I think with $6,200 a month per tiny unit that we have here, we could probably stretch that into a lot more with our land with modular housing and with other options,” De Genova said.
The $1.5 million will come from the city’s empty homes tax fund, which was set up to be used to pay for housing-related investments in Vancouver.
The 10 tiny shelters are budgeted to cost up to $460,000, or $46,000 per unit, but final cost will depend on which builder is chosen.
At least $1 million in operating funds will go to Lu’ma Native Housing Society, which operates the 60-bed shelter at 875 Terminal Ave. Known as Klahowya Tillicum Lalum, the shelter is inside the former Butler Box and Storage building and opened in May 2021.
Tenants of the shelter are offered 24-hour staff support, meals, washrooms and laundry. The same services will be provided to people who move in the tiny shelters, which are expected to open by September.
Coun. Pete Fry, who has pushed for tiny shelters or homes in Vancouver for several years, said his inspiration came from visiting the Dignity Village in Portland, Ore. in 2014.
Fry said tenants resided there for an average of six months before they moved in to permanent housing.
“It was an opportunity for folks to get their feet on the ground and have a roof over their head — and to get mail and get their ID and get all those kinds of things that many of us take for granted,” he said.
Fry also pointed to a recent B.C. Supreme Court decision related to the homeless encampment at CRAB Park which allowed residents of the camp to remain. Justice Matthew Kirchner agreed with two residents’ arguments that there was currently no suitable shelter available to campers.
“We've heard the courts say loud and clear that the stuff on offer in the city of Vancouver…through BC Housing is not substantial enough and sustainable,” he said, adding that Vancouver can't continue to give up its parks to homeless camps. “So we need to come up with other solutions.”
City staff will now begin a procurement process to find a builder for the tiny shelters. Staff told council Tuesday that such a project could be expanded, but that will depend on the results of an evaluation.
Victoria and Duncan already have tiny house villages in place.
A memo from staff to council in November 2021 suggested the rate of homelessness in Vancouver “remains the same or perhaps may have even increased” since March 2020, when volunteers counted 1,548 people living in some form of shelter and 547 on the street.
“You have to start somewhere, and when you start somewhere it’s not always perfect,” Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung said in her closing remarks Tuesday.
“But what we have now is quite the opposite of that. And if you keep doing what you have always done, you will get the same results, which is what we're doing, and it is not getting better. So I am supportive of looking creatively to try a change.”