He said they are working closely with about 2,000 agencies and non-profits delivering social services to make sure they have what the need to operate through the pandemic.
The B.C. government will use a “crisis supplement model” to support people in income and disability assistance, and is reducing bureaucracy that slows down the delivery of services, Simpson said.
He said they are also forming a plan for assistance cheque-issue day next week. Drug overdoses and deaths spike on the last Wednesday of each month.
“We know this is a challenging time for all British Columbians,” Simpson said.
“It’s a challenging time around the anxiety that’s created by this virus, and the anxiousness, and that is even more challenging for people who are living vulnerable. For people who are poor, people with disabilities, people who are on the street, the homeless, it’s an extremely challenging time for that population in particular.”
In B.C., 1.5 million people, almost one in three, live in strata condos and townhouses, And many of which have been hit by skyrocketing insurance rates that have left residents in financial distress and worried about their futures.
“It is very disturbing and it is gut-wrenching. It is a grave concern for a lot of people,” said Jacqueline de Vooght, whose well-maintained Kelowna complex faces increases of more than 400 per cent for both its insurance premiums and water-damage deductibles.
“This must stop. … People are scared.”
Since Postmedia started reporting on this crisis last month, dozens of readers have shared horror stories of massive rate hikes (regardless of whether their buildings are old or new, or well-maintained), staggering increases in deductibles, insurance companies refusing to renew some policies or offering only partial replacement value.
Some unit owners worry they won’t be able to renew mortgages without proper building insurance while others can’t afford hundreds of extra dollars a month in strata fees. Renters worry increases will be passed on to them or that their landlords will simply sell, forcing them to move.
Many are angry that working families who bought into stratas because they couldn’t afford more expensive single-family homes now find themselves helpless in this newest crisis to hit B.C.’s housing market.
Dozens of interviews this week make it clear that although government and regulators are trying to find solutions, they have only just started gathering the necessary information to try to understand what is happening — so no quick fix is on the horizon.
And that means the situation is expected to get far worse before it gets better for B.C.’s 35,000 strata corporations and their occupants, who include just about every segment of society: Families, seniors, immigrants, renters, people on fixed incomes and high-earners in luxury towers.
That is of no comfort to residents like Asifa Lalji, who had to quit her public relations job two years ago when her muscular dystrophy worsened and now lives on disability assistance. Insurance rate hikes for her New Westminster condo building mean her strata fees will increase about $200 a month, which is tough to absorb if your budget is already stretched.
“There are seniors here that are on fixed incomes, low-income families that are going paycheque to paycheque, and people like me with disabilities. … You don’t want to be depleting all your savings and building up your debt just to live day-to-day, which is what is happening,” she said.
“And we’ve been told by the insurance companies that this is going to continue for at least another year.”
Lalji started an online petition that has already gathered nearly 8,700 signatures. She wants the provincial government to come up with “short-term and long-term changes that will protect the strata owner and renter from unfair increases and unfair liability.”
Finance Minister Carole James said that her government is “working hard” to have some short-term ideas in the next month, but even those are unlikely to offer relief to someone like Lalji.
“This is a very complex issue. There aren’t simple solutions,” James said.
“We are gathering the data we need for long-term solutions. We are looking at how we can address the short-term pressures that people are facing. There isn’t a quick fix here, but I certainly am committed to making sure we are doing everything we can.”
James listed some options being considered by government to try to get companies to offer lower rates, although she made it clear they have not committed to pursuing any of them yet. These include closing a loophole that allows stratas to defer depreciation reports, requiring buildings to take measures to lower the risk of water damage, and more education for strata councils, which are comprised of owners who don’t necessarily have in-depth knowledge about maintenance or insurance.
Postmedia asked James about other ideas, including capping insurance rate hikes, making it mandatory for condo owners to have additional insurance to cover their own units, and government-operated housing insurance, similar to ICBC for cars. James said nothing was being ruled out as the government continues to investigate.
James said this issue wasn’t on the government’s radar until late last fall, about the time stratas started receiving renewal notices from their insurers. At this point, she does not even know how many stratas are being affected, and noted that condo owners without rate hikes are worried about what will happen to their buildings in the future.
“The magnitude of the problem still has to be determined,” she said.
Because home insurance is in the private sector, James said, government has not kept figures on rate hikes for condos. But she has asked the information be gathered now by the new Crown agency that regulates insurance, the B.C. Financial Services Authority, which replaced the Financial Institutions Commission.
So, well into a crisis, the Financial Services Authority is essentially starting at square 1 to gather information on how widespread rate hikes are, the average increases across the province, and why this is happening now.
The authority is determining how many of the 300 insurance companies in B.C. provide strata insurance, and how many have stopped offering policies to condos and townhouses, said its deputy superintendent, Frank Chong. It is also collecting at least two years of data on every policy’s value, location, number of units, type of units, construction type, age of building, commissions paid to brokers, and deductibles for earthquake, sewer and water damage.
Chong, who noted his agency’s role is to “make sure that consumers are being treated fairly,” hopes to have a partial picture by the end of March, and a complete picture by the end of April.
“We recognize the significance of how important of an issue this is to people and the concern and uncertainty it is really causing right now,“ he said.
“There is overall recognition among various stakeholders, the (authority) included, that this will remain an issue going forward. So we will devote resources here to understanding how this issue has played out and how it will play out over the coming weeks and months.”
The data, Chong hopes, will explain why insurers feel the strata market has become an unprofitable one for them.
Even at the national level, the Canadian Council of Insurance Regulators, an umbrella organization for regulators in each province, has not taken action on this issue. Its members will meet in early April to discuss whether rate hikes are occurring in other provinces and to suggest possible responses, said the council’s policy manager, Tony Toy.
Toy, who is also with the Ontario regulator, said he is aware of only B.C. and Alberta raising concerns. Chong, also a member of the national council, said he has heard of similar concerns, but to a lesser extent, in Manitoba and Quebec.
It’s not clear, though, why B.C.’s neighbours to the south aren’t reporting similar cost increases, including in the hot real estate market of Seattle.
“We’re not hearing from our consumers about this issue,” said Stephanie Marquis, a spokeswoman for the Washington state Office of the Insurance Commissioner. “According to our actuaries who review the filings …they haven’t seen a slew of big increases for condos.”
Some buildings struggle to get insurance
The steep increases in B.C. are a big enough problem for condo owners. But for Michel Proulx, there is an even bigger problem keeping him up at night.
Last month, HUB International, a massive American insurance brokerage, notified the strata council at Proulx’s Port Coquitlam building that its insurance would expire on Friday, March 6, due to “reducing market capacity.” Following negotiations with the strata, HUB came back this week to say it found enough insurers to cover 67 per cent of the replacement costs of the building, but not the 100 per cent required under B.C.’s Strata Property Act.
Proulx, a retired banker, is concerned not only about the financial risk but also the legal issues of not having sufficient insurance — people may not be able to renew mortgages and selling units may become impossible.
Proulx, who said his large complex is well-maintained and he is not aware of major recent claims, urged the government to step in quickly before many unit owners face financial ruin.
Owners in his building are facing strata fees increases of roughly $200 a month, he said. “We can swing it, but there are a lot of young families in our development for whom it could be pretty tight with mortgage payments.”
Why is this happening?
There are several confusing elements in this crisis, such as why the insurance hikes appear to be hitting British Columbia the hardest and why — so far — single-family homes seem to be immune.
We went in search of answers from several places, including HUB International.
“The class has been unprofitable for most insurers over the past few years due to … rising claims costs and frequency,” said Sarah Thompson, HUB’s chief marketing officer in B.C. “Poorly constructed new buildings and the lack of preventative maintenance in older buildings has driven higher frequency and severity of water claims.”
Other factors include buildings being constructed too close together “without municipalities investing in improving fire protection,” the increase in reconstruction costs, the rise in severe weather in Canada and globally, and some insurers have left the industry or reduced the amount they will cover, which has led to increased premiums and higher deductibles “to attract insurers” to stay in the market, Thompson said.
When asked about examples like Proulx’s building, which could not get a renewal to cover 100 per cent of replacement costs, Thompson said the broker approaches more than 40 insurers to try to find full coverage for clients. “Unfortunately, given the current market conditions, full replacement cost coverage is not always achievable,” she said in an email.
Condo insurance increases are happening in other areas of Canada, she said, but B.C. has an extra challenge because it is in an earthquake-prone area.
James, the finance minister, insists increases are happening across Canada, including in Ontario. But she notes the high price of labour and materials makes replacement costs for damaged buildings higher in B.C. than in other provinces. Another move B.C.’s government is considering is improving transparency so that unit owners would be given more notice about rate hikes and better understand why costs are increasing.
James stopped short, though, of endorsing a recommendation that stemmed from an interim report released during Australia’s three-year royal commission into out-of-control insurance rates in the northern half of the country: It urged the government to develop a national home insurance comparison website to allow consumers to compare policies.
The report from Australia notes that in the northern half of the country, which has had a series of expensive insurance claims, residents are anxious about the steep rise in rates and “fear devastation if disaster hits” and they are uninsured or underinsured.
“We have observed an unusual competitive dynamic, with insurers in northern Australia not necessarily motivated to compete on price for market share,” the report says. “Instead we have seen them increasing prices to manage their exposure in a region they perceive to be risky or volatile. This is exacerbating affordability concerns.”
Queensland resident Margaret Shaw has been advocating change since 2011, but said some stratas simply can’t find insurance. Laws have been changed to allow some buildings to have only partial replacement value insurance because that is all they can find. Yet one complex with previous flood damage had its insurance increase to $425,000 a year from $92,000.
“Home and contents and rural (insurance) seem to have stabilized. Commercial and business is getting worse. And strata, well — strata is well and truly stuffed,” Shaw said in an email. “I hate to tell you, the situation will only get worse, with no solution available at the moment.”
Industry representatives offer explanations, recommendations
The Insurance Brokers Association of B.C. released a set of proposed legislative reforms last month, and weeks later the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the lobbying association for the country’s insurers, released its own recommendations. Both organizations, along with the opposition B.C. Liberals, want the Strata Property Act amended to clearly define a standard unit to determine what strata lot owners are responsible for and what the strata corporation is responsible for.
That move could help alleviate confusion and reduce the number of claims filed by stratas, said Rob de Pruis, IBC director of consumer and industry relations for Western Canada. He, like the government, does not have figures on how many insurers have exited this market.
Despite many headlines and the opposition Liberals providing examples of 300- or 400-per-cent condo insurance cost hikes, he argued the reality is closer to “an average of 30 to 35 per cent.” But conceded that information is “more anecdotal.”
De Pruis said insurance companies are being hit by “a whole bunch of market conditions” such as increasing frequency and severity of claims filed by stratas and climate-related disasters across the globe, including hurricanes in the U.S. and wildfires in Australia.
“It’s hard to translate to say the California wildfires are causing your condo premium in Vancouver to go up, it’s not a direct correlation. But that’s just another compounding factor,” he said. “We just seem to have a lot of economic and regional factors that are converging all at once that are impacting, certainly, many strata corporations.”
Condo owners ‘blindsided’
Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Home Owners Association of B.C., worries some policy proposals being advanced by the insurance industry may not result in lower rates for consumers.
“Are we just throwing the industry more of a financial benefit and we’re not getting anything in return? In which case, it’s the consumer who pays the price for it,” he said.
This week, Gioventu heard from residents of a Surrey condo tower, which has had several insurance claims, that their premiums are increasing 600 per cent. It will double the cost of monthly strata fees from an average of $350 a unit to $700. Deductibles have jumped to $750,000, Gioventu said, which raises the question: “Why bother to insure at all?”
High-risk buildings tend to be condo towers that are more than 25 years old and any buildings with a history of claims or maintenance problems, even low-rise townhouses, said Gioventu. Luxury buildings, even new ones, are also high-risk, he said, because the high-end finishings mean high replacement costs.
Gioventu, who has been in his role since 1998, said the recent insurance hikes hitting some of B.C.’s 900,000 condo units represent probably the biggest challenge his organization has faced since the leaky condo crisis of the late 1990s.
“This condo insurance thing has totally blindsided everyone. No one saw it coming,” Gioventu said. “It’s going to redefine the term housing affordability.”
Ian Gilhooley, a retired financial executive, said his Coal Harbour building has been hit with an insurance increase of close to 225 per cent, despite having no serious claims history.
“Basically, this market can be played, because nobody has any choice in the matter. What’s to stop it going up 300 per cent next year?” Gilhooley said. “There’s absolutely no way you can look at this marketplace and say it’s functioning properly … There’s a very broad public policy issue here.”
Almost half the condos in Vancouver are not occupied by their owners, and James, the finance minister, said that anything that could raise rents is a real concern.
Like Gilhooley, de Vooght said her Kelowna complex is meticulously maintained but still faces insurance premium hikes to $325,000 a year from $100,000and deductibles for water damage jumping to $50,000 from $10,000.
“Frankly, this is not sustainable. Owners cannot afford these increases,” said de Vooght, noting numerous seniors in her building live on strict budgets. “Hard-working, responsible people have downsized to what we thought was an affordable way to retire, and now this has blown up in our faces.”
Final numbers from the 2019 Vancouver homeless count were released this week and advocates say they again prove the urgent need for more social housing and welfare rates high enough to cover basic rent in the city.
The figures didn’t change much from a preliminary report released in June. Volunteers counted 2,223 homeless people in the city, up two per cent from 2,181 last year. It was the highest number since 2005, when the count was first done.
Surveys revealed that 23 per cent were women and girls, one per cent identified as non-binary, and seven per cent were under 25 years of age.
Most were sick and most lost their homes in Vancouver. Sixty per cent were experiencing two or more health problems, up from 54 per cent in 2018. Eighty-one per cent were already living in the city when they became homeless.
Celine Mauboules, the city’s director of homelessness services, said she was particularly troubled to learn that the homeless population is aging. Twenty-three per cent of respondents were 55 years or older, up from 21 per cent last year.
Shelter providers meet seniors living on small incomes and pensions, and unable to keep up with rising rents, Mauboules said. With vacancy rates near zero, upon losing their housing, they are unable to find affordable units elsewhere and turn to the street. Some lose their housing during long hospital stays, she added.
“They just don’t have any other options,” Mauboules said. “We hear these stories from seniors who are falling through the cracks of our systems of care, and are really being priced out of the housing market based on their limited income.”
Jeremy Hunka, spokesman for Union Gospel Mission, said the rising number of homeless seniors was a top concern for his non-profit, too.
“We know that homeless seniors face even more challenges to exiting homelessness than others, including health and mobility concerns that can keep them stuck, along with fixed incomes and less ability to work, which also prevents exiting homelessness,” Hunka said.
“Senior guests are also much more vulnerable to extreme cold and being taken advantage of, mistreated, or even robbed when they are alone outside, so this steady increase is definitely concerning.”
Coun. Jean Swanson, a longtime poverty fighter elected in 2018, said many of the figures in the counts have been consistent over the years, and government should be acting on what it has long known.
“It’s so frustrating to be always counting and not building housing,” she said.
“I disagree with the premise that it’s so complex. I think we do need to do the counts but it’s almost as if the purpose of them is to say that the problem is these people have mental health issues or they have addictions, when the problem is that they don’t have housing.”
Swanson wants the provincial government to build more modular housing and raise income-assistance rates to be commensurate with the cost of living in the city.
“Those things have to be changed, we can’t let up on them,” she said.
Income and disability assistance rates rose $150 in the past three years, but only after more than a decade with no increase at all, Swanson lamented. A $50 increase last budget put the rate for a single employable person at $760 a month, less than 50 per cent of the poverty line, according to the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition.
In the past two years, just over 600 units of temporary modular housing, a relatively fast-to-erect and inexpensive kind of prefabricated building, has been built in Vancouver, mostly funded by the province.
Next spring, a 58-unit modular building will open at Vanness Avenue and Copley Street, and the city is working with the province for more permanent modular housing.
Mauboules agreed with Swanson that building more social housing and raising income-assistance rates are key to reducing homelessness.
Meantime, with the temperature dropping, an additional 300 low-barrier shelter beds have been opened in the city. Extreme-weather response beds add another 160 sleeping spaces and warming centres provide a place for people to come inside from the cold for some food.
Mauboules said there are some people who won’t want to use shelters and who say they are fine sleeping in parks or on the street. Outreach workers are working to build relationships with them over time, she said.
“I think it’s a matter of building trust with that person and identifying what the options are,” she said.
“Maybe they had a bad experience at a shelter so they don’t like shelters. But maybe with a different shelter or operator, they might have a different experience … or in terms of housing. People need choice.”
VICTORIA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet ministers may have barely found their offices after being sworn in Wednesday, but they will soon be getting urgent calls from their B.C. counterparts who have a long list of items they want to see action on from Ottawa.
Among the top issues for B.C. are priority cash for child care, housing, and money laundering.
Premier John Horgan’s promise of $10-a-day child care currently only exists in 53 prototype sites funded using $60 million from a federal early learning child care agreement set to expire on March 31.
B.C.’s minister of state for child care, Katrina Chen, said she is “eager to have that renewed” by Ahmed Hussen, the new families, children and social development minister.
“I’m staying cautiously optimistic we will have that conversation soon and make sure there’s stability for families,” said Chen.
The NDP promised $10-a-day child care in the 2017 election, but the phase-in of the plan will take a decade. In the meantime, Chen said B.C. has been analyzing the prototype sites — where roughly 2,500 lucky parents pay only $200 a month per spot — to see how they have been working. Preliminary results are coming soon, she said.
The federal agreement, which was worth $153 million over three years, also helped pay for expansions to the Aboriginal Head Start early learning and child care programs.
Hussen, Ottawa’s former immigration figure, will be an in-demand minister in B.C. due to another portfolio he holds: the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
B.C.’s ambitious goal to build 114,000 new units of affordable housing over 10 years will need continued support from agencies like CMHC, as well as more funding from federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau to cost-match B.C. programs, additional land from federal agencies, and extra dollars to help with supportive housing services. That’s not to mention a comprehensive homelessness strategy that B.C. has asked Ottawa to draft.
Attorney-General David Eby’s planned crackdown on money laundering provoked a public pledge of cooperation from Ottawa last year, but apparently none of the promised funding ever actually arrived.
“We’re unfortunately still waiting for the federal government to come through with the promised funding for additional enforcement for the RCMP to be doing policing related to money laundering in our province,” Eby told reporters this week.
Luckily for Eby, the federal point person for money-laundering, Bill Blair, was promoted in Trudeau’s new cabinet to Minster of Public Safety, where he will now be in charge of the RCMP.
“As soon as I get a chance to get Mr. Blair on the phone and congratulate him on his appointment, I will be pressing him for that money as soon as possible,” said Eby.
New federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu is making early sounds of support for a universal pharmacare program, to cover the cost of prescription drugs for Canadians. But B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix will be one of the first calls to her office to warn that no such plan will work if it means downloading extra costs onto provincial budgets. It is an especially important point when you considering B.C. is currently struggling to keep its books balanced.
Rookie minister Seamus O’Regan is undoubtedly cramming to get himself up to speed on his new Ministry of Natural Resources. One of his top briefing items will be the high-profile request from Horgan to Trudeau that Ottawa increase the flow of refined gasoline in the federally owned Trans Mountain Pipeline to help lower the costs of gas for Lower Mainland drivers.
This took on renewed importance due to a recent report by the B.C. Utilities Commission that again highlighted an unexplained 13 cents per litre cost on B.C. motorists. Bruce Ralston, the B.C. minister handling gas pricing, is expected to push this as a priority item with the federal capital.
Delta’s Carla Qualtrough was moved from the federal public services ministry to the new Ministry of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, where she will be fielding requests from B.C. Social Development Minister Shane Simpson for expanded social service funding.
That includes boosts to federal employment insurance, early retirement and retraining grants for B.C. forestry workers who have lost their jobs, as well as expanded federal aid packages for anyone who is about to be displaced by a contentious agreement between First Nations and the two levels of government to save the endangered woodland caribou population near Prince George.
The larger issue of First Nations reconciliation may see federal minister Carolyn Bennett, who retained her portfolio, taking lessons from B.C. as it becomes the first government in Canada to enact the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
B.C. wants Trudeau to make good on an election promise that “the federal government will be there as a partner” on a replacement for the aging George Massey Tunnel (likely a new tunnel).
Coming up with that cash will be the job of new federal Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna. While she has the chequebook open, Lower Mainland mayors want to see extra funding to expand the SkyTrain line all the way to Surrey — a key decision that could influence whether the B.C. government matches its own funding to expand the project.
Some working relationships between B.C. and Ottawa were disrupted by the new cabinet shuffle.
The Horgan government had found an ally in federal minister Jonathan Wilkinson of North Vancouver, who moved quickly to save salmon endangered by the Fraser River rockslide late this summer, and put a priority on B.C.’s request to crack down on open-pen salmon fish farms.
Wilkinson’s shuffle to the larger portfolio of Environment and Climate Change means the B.C. NDP-Green alliance has a powerful partner in its ambitious plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But it also means the federal fisheries file reverts back to an MP from Atlantic Canada (in this case Bernadette Jordan from Nova Scotia), which history has shown means much less help for B.C. on its fisheries problems.
Two other B.C. MPs have cabinet jobs, giving the province four seats at Trudeau’s table. Harjit Sajjan remains in the defence portfolio. Vancouver Quadra MP Joyce Murray was promoted to Minister of Digital Government — a job so nebulous that who knows what that means for the province, if anything.
Horgan has said he has had a good working relationship with the federal Liberal government. But as Trudeau grapples with his reduced minority, and Horgan enters the back half of his mandate, it’s clear B.C. is looking for less talk and more action from the prime minister’s newest cabinet.
The Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation, which is owned by the regional district, is a non-profit organization that supports mixed-income communities, mainly for families, seniors, and people with special housing needs.
It has 49 sites across the region, with more than 3,400 units.
The plan outlines four goals: Support healthy, engaged communities; Preserve and renew existing housing to maintain affordability and improve sustainability and accessibility; Grow strategically through redevelopment and expansion; And develop partnerships to expand affordable rental housing across the region.
It also aims to maintain at least 30 per cent of its units as rent-geared-to-income housing, which means tenants only pay 30 per cent of their gross income, and ensure that 70 per cent are two bedrooms or more to support families.
The region is expected to continue to grow by more than 35,000 residents per year, according to Metro, with a growing demand for family housing, and more accessible homes to support an aging population.
Over the last decade, the rental vacancy in Metro Vancouver has remained very low at an average of 1.3 per cent. The report says that to meet the region’s forecasted population growth, an estimated 5,400 new rental units are needed every year, with more than 80 per cent supporting very low to moderate incomes.
After Christine Harris’s son died slowly and alone in a Vancouver supportive housing unit, she vowed to do everything possible to ensure no other parent would have to share her pain.
She last spoke to her son, Lindsey Longe, on July 12, 2012. The 30-year-old was last seen alive by a friend on July 15, 2012. He died the next day of blood poisoning in his room at Pacific Coast Apartments. The use of illicit drugs contributed to his death, according to a coroner’s report.
Longe’s body wasn’t discovered until three days after he died, after days of Harris calling and pleading with Coast Mental Health staff to check on him, Harris said.
In recent years, Harris, an Alberta social worker, has been developing “Got Your Back For Life,” a volunteer program that pairs people living in supportive housing with a “most-trusted person” who agrees to check on them regularly.
The program is halfway through a one-year pilot at PHS Community Services Society’s Margaret Mitchell Place. About 20 residents of the 52-unit temporary modular housing complex near Olympic Village Station signed an agreement with a trusted person who might be a friend, neighbour, family member or staff member.
Together, they decide how often they’ll do health and wellness checks — it might be every day or once per week — and sign contracts with some personal information and ID photos. The trusted person can then go to building staff at the agreed-upon time, or any time they have a reason to be concerned, and ask them to check on their partner.
Harris said the program came out of discussions with supportive housing residents during an event she holds each summer in her son’s memory. She pitched the cost-free program to PHS in July 2018 and by November the trial was underway.
She praised PHS for already doing 24-hour checks at its supportive housing units but said she hopes the program helps push other housing operators to do better, too.
“(PHS is) doing it to give their tenants an extra layer of protection,” she said. “I think it’s amazing.”
Amid the overdose crisis, B.C. Housing updated contracts with supportive housing sites to require them to conduct health and wellness checks at least every 48 hours, and more frequently when deemed necessary.
But Harris believes 48 hours is inadequate. She keeps an eye on coroner reports, which recently indicated that in Vancouver 48 per cent of the people who died of an illicit-drug overdose since 2017 were in “other residences” such as social and supportive housing, SROs, shelters and hotels.
“I don’t believe that we, as a society, have done enough,” Harris said. “We need to give people the power to look after each other and this community. These people care about each other.”
Margaret Mitchell Place resident Chris Middleton said he has a strong network of friends, family and staff who check on his well-being often, but knowing Got Your Back For Life has a “most-trusted person” regularly checking on him, too, puts his mind at ease.
“I have someone else looking out for me,” he said. “A lot of people don’t. They grow up in these buildings and they have no one that is willing to go ‘Hey, how are you?’”
Middleton believes the program is particularly good for people who might not leave their room too often, such as those who are elderly or disabled.
“It should be status quo,” he said. “Everybody would have their buddy that would check in on how they’re doing.”
The program also helps build community. When it came to Margaret Mitchell Place, it brought people together right away, said building manager Byron Slack.
“A lot of people knew each other in the building but hadn’t really congregated in the common spaces,” he said. “It was one of the first programs we brought into the building and it’s a way of empowering neighbours to be able to check up on their friends.”
Slack said staff check on residents on behalf of their loved ones whether or not they are in the program, but said the contract made between its participants, in honour of Longe, is especially meaningful.
“It’s been a really positive thing,” he said.
The program appealed to PHS because it was peer-driven and came at the height of the “prohibition crisis” behind B.C. overdose deaths, said Duncan Higgon, senior manager of housing.
It works as an overdose intervention tool, he said. For example, if partners score drugs from the same dealer, one might go back to their room, take them and come close to an overdose. With their Got Your Back For Life commitment in mind, they might be compelled to make sure their partner with potent drugs is OK.
Staff have embraced the program and it has the added benefit of engaging tenants in peer-to-peer work, Higgon said. Sometimes, tenants don’t like to ask staff for help, so an arrangement with a peer is more appealing.
“For us, that is very meaningful,” he said. “When we were presented with those opportunities, it was really exciting to trial.”
Higgon said PHS is developing trials at three other PHS modular-housing buildings. But there is potential for it to run at all 1,500 units of PHS housing. He would like to see it used to help homeless people, too.
“I really do see it as a uniquely beautiful, supportive and useful tool across a whole spectrum,” he said.
Harris believes that if just one life is saved by Got Your Back For Life, her program has done what it was designed to do.
“Lindsey, in the last while of his life, when he started hoarding, became very isolated,” she said.
“He was living in shame. To have had something that could have connected him with someone a little more tightly would have helped in many ways.”
The Fraser Health Authority says it is investigating after Chilliwack Mayor Ken Popove raised concerns about a 76-year-old woman who was discharged from Surrey Memorial Hospital and sent by taxi to the Chilliwack Salvation Army shelter, despite mobility and incontinence issues.
On Thursday, the mayor requested a meeting with Fraser Health CEO Dr. Victoria Lee to discuss “why vulnerable people are being sent to Chilliwack homeless shelters from another community.”
He cited the case of an elderly woman who had no family in Chilliwack, but arrived at the local shelter from the Surrey hospital in early February. Shelter staff were not prepared to care for her medical needs, which included severe incontinence.
“Constantly cleaning up fecal matter … is a serious concern for both staff and shelter clients,” said Popove in a letter to Lee.
Fraser Health spokesman Dixon Tam said Fraser Health makes “every effort” to find homeless patients a place to go when they are clinically stable and ready to leave the hospital, but “finding suitable housing is a challenge across our region.”
Tam said: “We are committed to continue to work closely with B.C. Housing and our municipal partners to develop more options. At the same time, we need to be careful not to use hospital beds as an alternative to stable housing.”
Abbotsford homeless advocate Jesse Wegenast said he wasn’t surprised to read the Chilliwack mayor’s account in the newspaper, “but only because it’s such a common practice.”
Wegenast’s organization, The 5 and 2 Ministries, opened a winter homeless shelter in Abbotsford on Nov. 1. The next day, he received a call from a Vancouver General Hospital administrator asking if he had space for an 81-year-old patient.
Wegenast said he often says no to accepting patients because the shelter is not open 24 hours and people must leave during the day. He’s had requests to take people with severe mobility issues, as well as those who need help with toileting or washing.
“The people who work at shelters are often very compassionate, and if the hospital says, ‘Well, we’re not keeping them,’ they feel obligated to help,” said Wegenast.
The pastor said he’s rarely seen people in shelters receive home care or followup care, and it’s also difficult for them to get prescriptions filled.
Wegenast helped a low-income senior on Friday who recently had half of his foot amputated. The man lives in an apartment and was receiving home care to help with dressing changes, but he’d been unable to get antibiotics for five days since being released from hospital.
“When you have people exiting acute care at the hospital and there’s no one to follow that up, it’s bad for that person’s health, and it’s also bad for public health in general,” he said.
Unlike Wegenast, Warren Macintyre was surprised to read about the Chilliwack woman’s situation because it confirmed that the experience he’d had with Fraser Health was not uncommon.
“I really had no idea this kind of thing was going on,” he said.
Three weeks ago, a close family member was admitted to Surrey Memorial after suffering from alcohol withdrawal, said Macintyre. He was placed on life support in the intensive care unit for about 10 days. When he was stable, he planned to enter a treatment program in Abbotsford, but there weren’t any beds available until March 14.
“We were told the plan was to keep him in hospital until then, but I got a call Wednesday telling me he’d been discharged,” said Macintyre.
Surrey Memorial had sent his relative to the treatment centre, where staff repeated they had no space, so he was returned to the hospital. The man, who had been staying at the Maple Ridge Salvation Army before his hospital admission, took a cab to a friend’s house.
His family is hoping he’ll be able to stay sober until he can get into treatment March 14.
“I told the hospital, if he goes back on the booze, he’ll be right back here,” said Macintyre.
Albert Briggs plays drums as Melanie Mark, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training and MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant; and Kennedy Stewart, Mayor of Vancouver look on at the opening of Norah Hendrix Place. NICK PROCAYLO / PNG
Nora Hendrix has been described as a remarkable woman who was the glue that connected Vancouver’s early black community.
On Sunday, the provincial government and the City of Vancouver officially opened a temporary modular housing project in Strathcona named after Hendrix, to honour her legacy and that of the black community that was wiped out of the area in the 1960s.
“Ms. Hendrix was a tireless advocate for her community,” said Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson.
The province committed 17 months ago to building 2,000 units of temporary modular housing across the province, with 606 of those units in Vancouver. The provincial government pledged $66 million toward the Vancouver projects.
In Vancouver, 554 provincially-funded modular homes have already been opened on nine sites. Nora Hendrix Place, a three-storey building with 52 units that will be run by the Portland Hotel Society, is the final project to be completed in the city. It’s expected that people will start moving in this week.
“Hundreds of people are living outside with nowhere to sleep, use the washroom or get regular food and water, and this isn’t how you treat your neighbours,” said Mayor Kennedy Stewart. “We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure everyone is included and has a roof over their head.”
Stewart said the modular housing units are a testament to cooperation between multiple levels of government, non-profits and the community, and he looks forward to working on more in the future.
The studio units, built by Horizon North, are about 320 square feet each in size and have a kitchenette, bathroom, and a living/sleeping area. Six homes are wheelchair accessible. The building has an indoor amenity space, commercial kitchen, laundry facilities, administration office and meeting rooms for the staff and residents.
All new modular housing buildings have staff on site 24 hours a day and provide services and supports such as meals, education and work opportunities, healthcare, life skills, social and recreational programs, case planning and needs assessment and help navigating government services.
To honour its location in what used to be Hogan’s Alley and the woman it is named after, the housing project will have some services and supports geared specifically to the needs of the black and Indigenous communities, and members of those groups who are experiencing homelessness will be prioritized.
“Let’s call it what it is: This city has a history of anti-black racism, it has history of anti-Indigenous racism,” said Stewart. “It has a long history of racism that we’re addressing through reconciliation but I think today it’s also addressing damage of the past.”
Hendrix came to Vancouver in 1911 and became an important figure in the East End neighbourhood — now Strathcona — and Hogan’s Alley in particular, which at the time was home to Vancouver’s black community.
Hendrix started the Vancouver chapter of the African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel, where people gathered to pray and socialize. She also cooked at Vie’s Chicken and Steak House on Union, which was part of Hogan’s Alley. Her grandson, rock legend Jimi Hendrix, was known to visit the area during his childhood.
Many of the homes and businesses in the community were demolished to make way for the “urban-renewal projects” and the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.
“That monument to our oppression … was what displaced our community,” said June Francis, co-chair of the Hogan’s Alley society, gesturing to the Dunsmuir viaduct. “It displaced our hopes, it displaced our dreams, it displaced our businesses.”
The modular housing site will eventually be redeveloped as part of the city’s North East False Creek Plan, which calls for the black community to be honoured and what was formerly Hogan’s Alley to be a focal point. A black cultural centre is a centrepiece to the redevelopment, and the city hopes to employ land trusts and long-term leases to build the community.
Finance Minister Carole James arrives to deliver the budget speech as she waves to people in the gallery at the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, February 19, 2018. CHAD HIPOLITO / THE CANADIAN PRESS
The B.C. NDP government’s second budget focused on tax breaks and benefits for people with children, students and businesses, and investments in clean energy and climate initiatives. Here’s a brief summary of how British Columbians will be affected.
The budget didn’t make any large strides toward $10-a-day child care beyond continuing funding for the government’s 2018 child care plan into 2021/2022 and increasing it by $9 million a year. The bigger news was the introduction of a B.C. Child Opportunity Benefit to replace the early childhood tax benefit, which currently provides families with up to $660 a year per child under the age of six.
The new benefit, which begins in October 2020, will provide families with one child up to $1,600 a year, with two children up to $2,600 a year and with three children up to $3,400 a year. Instead of ending at six years of age, the benefit will be paid until the child is 18.
Good news for British Columbians with student loans — no more interest payments. As of Tuesday, all B.C. student loans will stop accumulating interest, saving someone with $11,700 in provincial student loans $2,300 over the 10-year repayment period. This will cost the government $318 million.
The public education system will get a boost, with $2.7 billion set aside over three years to maintain, replace, renovate or expand facilities. There will also be $550 million invested to hire new teachers and special education assistants, and improve classrooms.
Community organizations will be provided with funding to operate rent banks to provide short-term loans with little or no interest to low-income tenants who can’t pay their rent because of a financial crisis. It will cost $10 million and be funded through the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction.
The implementation of a B.C.-wide rent bank system for low-income people was one of 23 recommendations delivered late last year from the Rental Housing Task Force struck by the B.C. government.
The climate action tax credit will be increased in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Starting July 1, the maximum credit will go up by 14 per centfor adults and children, meaning low- and middle-income families of four will receive up to $400 for this year.
More than $107 million in operating funding will provide incentives for battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (up to $6,000), incentives for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, incentives for home charging stations, as well as other programs.
Pharmacare program will be expanded with an additional $42 million to cover more drugs, including those for diabetes, asthma and hypertension. An additional $30 million will be invested in tackling the drug overdose crisis, bringing the total investment since 2017 to $608 million. Mental health programs focused on prevention and early intervention for children, youth and young adults will be funded to the tune of $74 million.
As promised previously, Medical Services Plan premiums will be fully eliminated on Jan. 1, 2020, saving families up to $1,800 per year.
Income and disability assistance rates will be increased by a $50 a month, a total increase of $150 a month (or $1,800 a year) since the 2017 budget update. Before 2017, the rates had not been increased for a decade. This will cost an extra $44 million over three years.
A homelessness plan will invest $76 million in land acquisition and services to build 200 more modular homes, bringing the total to 2,200 units.