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Suburbs can't escape city's disturbing trend

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"If the federal and provincial government don't get moving on this issue, we're going to see an increased number of people living on the streets everywhere," she said.

"We're going to see increased crime rates because people become desperate. . . . People in shelters say, 'When I leave the shelter I have no place to go and I will have to commit a crime so I can put a roof over my head, whether it's in a seedy hotel or someplace else.' They admit they have to do that in order to exist. So what it does is create a lot of safety and security issues in neighbourhoods in general and it increases the city's costs in funding police and fire and bylaw services."

Ms. Villeneuve said there is a constant demand on the health-care system because most homeless people have medical problems that require emergency services.

"It's putting tremendous costs on our health-care system. Our hospitals are under such strain now they have no way of dealing with the number of people accessing emergency services and needing psychiatric care. It's very difficult for them to release people when they have no place to release them to. And they are seeing people that are living on the street, with health problems getting much worse than they were, because the longer they are on the street the more intense their health problems become. So it's having a very negative effect on the health-care system and on people's lives in general."

Ms. Villeneuve, whose council has set up an $8.4-million homelessness fund and is pursuing partnerships with businesses to develop social housing, said the provincial and federal governments need to tackle the problem.

"In one of the richest provinces . . . we should be able to address this problem. . . . There's money to do other things," she said.

Others agree there is an urgent need for action.

Last October, the leaders of a dozen key business organizations in B.C. sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Premier Gordon Campbell and Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, asking them to work together on the problem.

"Vancouver is in the grip of an urban malignancy manifested by an open drug market, rising property crime, aggressive panhandling and a visible, growing population of the homeless," said the letter, sent by the Vancouver Board of Trade, Retail B.C., the Council of Tourism Associations of B.C., and other organizations representing more than 80,000 members and employees.

Although the letter raised concerns about how the justice system was dealing with street crime, the underlying theme was the "urgent" need for government to address the root cause of the problem: homelessness.

"There is a growing consensus that our community is at a defining moment and that we need a new approach and bold leadership," the letter said.

A city's sympathy

Vancouver residents don't blame the homeless for their plight, but see the lack of housing as a relatively minor cause, a poll by The Strategic Counsel indicates. The most common reaction to the homeless, according to the poll, is one of sympathy, although close to half of respondents stay away from parts of the city in order to avoid street people. Large numbers of respondents saw substance abuse and mental health problems as the chief causes of homelessness, with the lack of affordable housing running a distant third. Even fewer respondents believed that the homeless were on the street because they were too lazy to work. The poll of 500 Vancouver residents aged 18 years or older was conducted between Nov. 24 and Nov. 29; polls of this size are considered accurate to within 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Why do individuals become homeless?*

Drug or alcohol addiction: 57%

Mental health problems: 53%

Lack of affordable housing: 27%

Lack the skills to get a job: 17%

Too lazy to work: 14%

Low welfare rates: 9%

Don't know: 3%

How do you feel when you see a homeless person in Vancouver?

Sympathetic: 48%

Uncomfortable: 16%

Neutral: 15%

Afraid: 2%

Guilty: 2%

Ashamed: 6%

Angry: 8%

Don't know: 3%

Do you avoid parts of the city because of the number of homeless people?

No: 54%

Yes: 44%

Don't know: 1%

*Note: Numbers may not add up to 100 due to rounding, or multiple responses.

SOURCE: THE STRATEGIC COUNSEL

Series schedule

Monday

Two degrees short of salvation: How the streets killed Francis McAllister

Tuesday

An unnatural disaster: Don't

blame Vancouver's climate

Today

Suburban sprawl: The homeless outside of the East Side

Tomorrow

There is a way: A road map out of dead-end streets

Friday

But is there a will? Victoria and city hall react

Follow the series on globeandmail.com, on CKNW radio and on CTV News.

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