VANCOUVER -- Within weeks, hundreds of homeless people who’ve been living in tents and on the street will start moving into city-owned property, including a heritage building in the tony Point Grey area and a vintage motel on Kingsway.

Vancouver’s mayor gave the timeline one day after city council voted unanimously to approve $30 million in funds to lease back public buildings and also negotiate new agreements with vacant hotels, apartments and other buildings.

“You have to secure the properties legally. Even though they’re on city land, these buildings, they’re often leased to other people so there’s the legal bits of it, there’s insurance, there’s getting wraparound services, there’s actually getting people moving there,” explained Kennedy Stewart. “What I look at is the Oppenheimer model...the province did the right thing there: they leased hotels first, they started to move people in the hotels and that was quite bumpy...they later bought them.”

Stewart had put forward a motion for councillors to consider at a special meeting, with three options: leasing or buying available housing stock, establishing a temporary emergency relief camp, and temporarily converting city-owned buildings into emergency housing or shelters.

The Strathcona Residents Association was pleased with a decision they feel will address their concerns around safety and access to the park, which is the site of hundreds of tents, but will also improve the living situation of the people with nowhere else to go.

“It was a good news result and I’m actually really proud of city council for stepping up,” said spokesperson Katie Lewis. “I have to feel hopeful because what I saw yesterday was that council actually listened to the concerns of the community and they also listened to the concerns of the unhoused residents as well and we kind of landed on something that work for everyone.”

Many players have role in plan

Execution of the multi-million dollar plan doesn’t just rely on the negotiating skills of city hall staffers, it also requires the Vancouver Park Board to negotiate with the operator of a property it owns in the upscale Point Grey neighbourhood.

An old army barracks in the Jericho area is now leased to Hi-Hostels, and though a sign outside the heritage building says the hostel is closed until May 2021, civic officials still have to arrange for payments to the operator and an agreement for occupancy.

Frommers Travel guide says there are 252 beds in 15 dorms as well as nine private family units, and interior photos of the facility show a bar area, communal dining hall and other amenities. It’s unclear how many people will be housed at that location. It's in the middle of park land near a sailing club and a short walk from multi-million dollar homes overlooking the water.

On the other side of the city, the distinctive 2400 Motel on Kingsway is also on city property and has been leased by the government before, when Syrian refugee families were temporarily housed there before finding long-term accommodations.

The city of Vancouver says there are 65 rooms at that site where people will be housed.

Stewart said Vancouver Coastal Health and BC Housing will be involved with their plans, though the latter was tight-lipped on the plans.

“During the election period, we are limited as to what we can say publicly,” said a BC Housing spokesperson. “However, we can confirm that BC Housing continues to work with the City of Vancouver to determine how best to support those experiencing homelessness in the community. Once new sites are in place and a timeline has been established, we will then work with partners to move people into new units.”

Stewart emphasized that while the Strathcona Park campers will be among the estimated 750 street homeless to benefit from the program, others will be housed and taken care of; the dual issues of the pandemic and incoming poor weather are heavy on the minds of local politicians and administrators.

More money on the way

Social housing and supports for the homeless are typically a provincial responsibility, but those costs and obligations have increasingly been shouldered and financed by cities in recent years. Vancouver’s mayor says while they’ve dug deep into a pandemic-battered budget to find the funds for this rapid response plan, they’re relying on senior government going forward.

“We’re maxed on this on this now as the city, we need the province and feds,” said Stewart. “But I have heard from provincial officials that the restart money is coming within weeks so that should really help us and I’ve had, I think, five conversations with the federal housing minister about their Emergency Housing Fund and we should be in line for tens of millions of dollars from both of those funds in the near future.”