Patrick Stewart’s career is remarkable enough: he has overcome the odds of native heritage in a white society, and an upbringing in foster care to become a prominent Vancouver architect. But it’s his undying commitment to tackling aboriginal homelessness that is truly inspirational.
In addition to serving on Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Homeless Emergency Action Team, Stewart heads Metro Vancouver’s Aboriginal Homelessness Steering Committee as well as the National Aboriginal Housing Association.
When I catch up with him at his Commercial Drive office, Stewart is dressed in black, but not the trendy designer black of his downtown counterparts: just a smart but casual outfit of open-necked shirt and pleated pants. The flash of three silver rings on his right hand is the only hint of a distinct creative flair.
He tells me of being taken into the care of the province at birth, of a brother who called the streets of the Downtown Eastside home for 20 years, and of a sister’s struggles to stay off of welfare.
Speaking calmly and deliberately from the comfort of his warm office, he explains that the emergency response of the new city administration is encouraging, but is only a beginning: “Open beds, get them off the street: OK, check, we’ve done that,” he says. “The next steps are difficult, and require a lot of resources.”
But solving homelessness ultimately requires more than just throwing money at the problem, Stewart explains. “It starts with political will. Homelessness is created by people, so it takes people to solve homelessness, without retreating behind their little titles or job descriptions or ministries, and actually wanting to do something.”
A note of frustration creeps into his voice as he describes the provincial government’s recession budget of last March, which clawed back $80 million from housing services. “Recession doesn’t mean anything to the homeless,” Stewart says. “Go to Main and Hastings and they’ll say, ‘We’re always in a recession here; tell me when there’s some good news – you’ve got a house for me or something I can afford.’”