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Meanwhile… Using Empty Buildings to Provide Housing for Refugee Claimants
Written by Tanvi Bhatia
Journey Home Community began as a small group of community members from Willingdon Church in Burnaby who noticed a lack of support for refugee claimants in their neighbourhood. It has since grown into an organization that helped house ninety refugees in the last year. Now, Journey Home Community is using the concept of Meanwhile Spaces to create transitional housing for those who often fall through the cracks in the system.
Journey Home Community noticed that refugee claimants, while awaiting assessment, are not provided with the same supports or settlement resources offered to refugees. Without credit or rental history and with limited access to income, refugee claimants are unable to enter the competitive housing market and often end up seeking space in emergency shelters, which are not equipped to meet their unique needs. Only a few shelters in Metro Vancouver accept families, and they are often full—meaning many families are either separated or unable to find accommodation.
“We got a call from a family whose children were about to be apprehended because they didn’t have a place to stay,” says Doug Peat, who works in Housing and Donor Engagement at Journey Home Community. The parents were given the option to move their children into foster care, but offered no support in finding housing that would allow the family to stay together. That’s when they approached Journey Home Community for assistance.
That was just one case—now Journey Home Community is trying to address the underlying issues on a systemic level. They hope that the establishment of Meanwhile Spaces will help ensure that more refugee claimants are able to access safe and affordable housing upon arrival.
What is a Meanwhile Space?
Meanwhile Spaces are vacant buildings awaiting demolition or slated for rezoning, which are repurposed “in the meanwhile.” This has become common in cities across the world, including London, England.
When exploring the idea of bringing Meanwhile Spaces to Metro Vancouver, Journey Home Community looked for local examples of where empty buildings were being used. “The City of Vancouver has used empty hotels to [house] vulnerable peoples, so it’s not unheard of,” says Peat. “But [in Canada] it’s not a common practice or system.” Journey Home Community hopes to change that. Their goal is to create Meanwhile Spaces across Metro Vancouver that will provide temporary, transitional housing to refugee claimants.
As of this year, there are over 61,000 empty homes across Metro Vancouver. Journey Home Community is exploring what it might look like if only a small fraction of those buildings were put to use.
Meanwhile Spaces are meant to provide transitional housing, which requires more investment than just handing over a set of keys. Refugee claimants usually reside in Meanwhile Spaces for up to six months, during which time Journey Home Community connects them to resources such as lawyers, doctors, language services, and support for finding long-term housing. Journey Home Community understands that finding housing is only one of the many challenges refugee claimants face upon arrival, and that multiple supports are necessary to address the systemic barriers they face. According to Peat, Journey Home Community’s approach is to “get [tenants] ready for the next place,” and make sure they have the tools required to meet their needs.
Addressing concerns and changing attitudes
Taking a systems approach requires addressing the underlying beliefs and attitudes that have prevented other projects like this from taking off.
“Developers are wondering, are [refugee claimants] tenants? Who’s going to be the landlord? How are you going to handle that?” says Peat. Some are concerned about the staff labour they might need to invest in the project, or apprehensive about entering into non-traditional tenancy agreements. Journey Home Community is addressing those concerns by enacting Right to Occupy agreements, which designate refugee claimants as program participants receiving settlement services, and as long as they are doing so, gives them the right to occupy the Meanwhile Spaces. Journey Home Community acts as a landlord, providing staff support, guaranteeing rent, providing infrastructure for move-ins and move-outs, and handling tenant concerns.
Municipalities, on the other hand, are concerned that developers will take advantage of these sorts of agreements and evict pre-existing tenants early so that they can be guaranteed additional rent while operating as a Meanwhile Space. “We’re making the commitment that if somebody has that attitude, we don’t want to work with them,” says Peat. “We’re not in the business of creating more homelessness—we’re in the business of solving it.” But ultimately, “that’s a barrier that has to be overcome structurally.”
There are currently nine two-bedroom units being used as Meanwhile Spaces, and five one-bedrooms which will become available in August in Metro Vancouver. Journey Home Community hopes to secure funding for 110 additional units that will house refugee claimants for the next two years.
“Changing the attitude around the use of empty buildings is now underway. If we’re able to house over 150 people at a time, it’s going to push it over the top as an example,” says Peat.
Besides, “the alternative for an empty building is to board it up, put security fences around it and let the garden grow. Why not just use it?”
To learn more about Journey Home Community and the Meanwhile Spaces initiative, visit: https://www.journeyhomecommunity.ca/