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A very filthy room of one's own

Continued from Page 1

"When I was at DERA in the seventies and eighties, we didn't work on homelessness, because it wasn't a problem. You just didn't see people sleeping in the streets like you do now," she says.

The Downtown Eastside was different in other ways back then, too. For one thing, there weren't dozens and dozens of boarded-up buildings.

"There are two root causes to this problem," says Ms. Swanson, striking what will be a recurring theme in interviews. "One is what happened in 1993 when the Mulroney government abandoned the national housing program. The other was the abolition of the Canada Assistance Plan."

Until 1993, Ottawa provided the provinces with two-thirds of the funding for low-cost housing. Provincial housing programs continued after the federal money stopped, but not at the same pace, creating a rapidly widening gap between demand and supply. With fewer social-housing units available, poor people turned to cheap rental rooms, but rents were increasing and social assistance wasn't.

In 1996, the Canada Assistance Plan ended after 30 years of guiding transfer payments from Ottawa -- worsening the situation. CAP had tied the provinces to providing welfare support to people based on need, but provinces were then free to put restrictions on welfare and they quickly did, disqualifying many.

"The province stopped giving welfare to people in need and meeting basic living costs . . . all of a sudden, a lot less people are qualifying for support," Ms. Swanson says.

About 45 per cent do have some source of income -- be it social assistance, pension or disability payment. People also generate money by binning, bottle collecting, panhandling, working for minimum wage at casual jobs or criminal activity.

"That's what has closed the stores in our community," Ms. Swanson says. "The local residents have no purchasing power. When I worked at DERA, this was a poor community but people could afford to go for a cup of coffee or they could buy a hot plate for their room. Now they can't. And in those days, we had housing for them. Now we don't."

The homeless can't afford to rent even the cheapest rooms ($325 per month) in the Downtown Eastside, she says.

Jill Davidson, homeless-policy co-ordinator for the City of Vancouver, agrees.

"Sometimes we forget we didn't always live like this," she says of the homeless situation. "During Expo [in 1986], we had nothing like this."

Ms. Davidson says when there was federal funding for housing, the city was opening 800 low-rent units a year. "Right now, we are lucky if we can get 200, 300 units a year. We're largely falling behind."

Exacerbating the problem is a trend that began in the late 1980s, which has seen the closing or conversion of an increasing number of cheap hotel rooms, known as single-room occupancy units. SROs are the last hope for people in poverty before they start living in the street.

The $325 monthly housing allowance for those on social assistance (along with a $185 living allowance) is supposed to cover the rent of an SRO. But few rooms go that cheaply now. A recent survey found just one vacancy in the city at the $325 rate; 25 per cent of all SROs cost $380 or more. Officials say $380 is the point at which someone on social assistance can no longer afford to rent a room and have enough left over for food.

City planners estimate that 800 new units of social housing are needed every year for 10 years. But at the current rate, and with an increasing number of SROs closing, Vancouver is expected to lose 1,600 low-income housing units by 2010, doubling the number of its homeless.

Dealing with homeless people, who have multiple problems, is difficult for social workers. One-third of the homeless have symptoms of mental illness. Many have severe depression or say they think of suicide. At least two-thirds are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

David Eby, a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, a non-profit organization that advocates for the poor, set out this year to define the homelessness problem in Vancouver.

His team of researchers took an unusual approach. They fanned out through the streets armed with affidavits and conducted interviews with 160 people they found living outside. The problem is bad, he says -- and it's getting worse.

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