Love and exact change: Building compassion for homeless into Vancouver's transit system

You can tell a lot about a city by whom it lets on the bus.

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Flashin' that Compassion

Vancouver may enjoy a progressive image in terms of how we deal with homeless population, but you should look to Alberta if you want to see serious results. Alberta is operating under a 10-year plan to end homelessness in the province, a bold undertaking.

According to a progress report on the first three years of the program, Alberta is doing quite well, moving people from transitional housing to more permanent solutions, while drastically reducing transitional-housing client contact with police and emergency services. All this from the Texas of the North... bet you didn't see that coming.

$249 million over three years is a significant amount of money to spend on housing and shelter programs, but is it enough when held against the estimated $1.2 trillion Alberta will collect over the next 35 years from oil sands royalties alone? Not every Albertan is taking part in the oil economy.

Alberta is, however, giving a report card to itself, so certain elements may be downplayed. Broomfield spoke to the on-the-ground situation she deals with daily: "What I could say is that youth homelessness has risen in Edmonton and youth had the highest increase over the previous homeless count.  Our agency would also confirm an increase in young people using our services who are absolute homeless and many others who surf and have been doing so for a long period of time (years).  Appropriate placements for youth with multiple challenges like the youth iHuman serves is not an easily addressed issue."

Broomfield asserts that it will take "multiple years and substantial funding that is sustainable in the right areas" to patch the gaps in the current system.

Out west, Vancouver's street population has actually increased as the province cuts shelter budgets (the numbers of homeless youth and women are increasing, and Aboriginal Canadians remain over-represented). Yet Vancouver has long treated public transit as a necessary part of life for its homeless population, through explicit policy, to be sure, but moreso by tacitly allowing its transit workers to turn a blind eye to indigent passengers.

Indeed, if you're wondering, "What is Canada's homeless population?", the government's answer is basically, "We have no idea." It could be anything from 150,000 to over 300,000.

One thing we do know: on a federal level, Canada's commitment to preventing homelessness has weakened, with a new affordable-housing initiative budget cut every year for the last four years. Canadian cities are picking up the slack for the most part, but not when it comes to transit.

In this sense, Vancouver proves itself perhaps more compassionate than other large Canadian cities; we're thinking of our most-vulnerable in terms of how they actually move around.

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