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A home is where the hope is

A growing chorus of supporters say subsidized housing curbs homelessness by stabilizing the lives of those trying to survive out on the streets, MARK HUME writes

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — There are 82 tenants in the social-housing facility Dennis Krausher runs, and he knows that among them are drug addicts, prostitutes and people with multiple mental problems.

As far as he's concerned, they are all good clients who are welcome to stay. But then, in his world, cutting people slack comes with the territory.

"I don't sit here in judgment on them," said Mr. Krausher, a landlord who is so close to the front lines of the homelessness crisis in Vancouver that some of his tenants have literally moved in off the street.

"I don't have a three strikes and you're out rule. I have a preservation of tenancy -- if at all possible -- rule," he said.

"There are certain things they can't do, of course. If they commit a violent act or don't pay their rent, they have to go. Almost everything else we can work out," said Mr. Krausher, who is in regular contact with 23 social support groups that help his tenants on a daily basis.

When people look at the scope of the homelessness crisis in Vancouver -- which is mirrored in other cities across Canada -- they invariably ask: Is there a solution?

Increasingly, social planners are saying, yes there is -- and it's in the kind of supportive, social housing that Mr. Krausher runs. Complexes like his (which isn't being named to protect the privacy of the tenants) are at the heart of a strategy that is rapidly gaining momentum in North America and which is known simply as "housing first." Few people know better than Mr. Krausher how secure, safe housing can change people's lives. It doesn't perform miracles -- but it sure helps.

Some of his tenants are on welfare. Some are on disability pensions. Some turn tricks or collect recyclable bottles and cans to augment their meagre income. There are so many binners in the building (people who dive in dumpsters to salvage saleable items) that the management committee is considering regulations to control when they are allowed to rattle through the courtyard.

But Mr. Krausher says having a home to live in has given them all a stable base from which to slowly rebuild their lives.

He measures success in ways most of us might not.

"We've had people come in here with hep[atitis] C. They've beat it. They've stayed on their meds and got better," he said, citing what he sees as a major triumph.

"Not everyone improves. But I've seen lives not getting any worse, and that's saying something."

And every once in a while a tenant surprises him.

This week, he had a call from a young man who was giving his notice. He came to the facility from a homeless shelter -- and phoned from Calgary to say he had a job.

"He said, 'Thanks for giving me a place so I could get out of that shelter. I was able to get my head together. I'm not coming back.' "

Another tenant who had been on welfare for eight years told Mr. Krausher social assistance was a crutch and he was quitting it to force himself to find work. It was, under the circumstances, a daring leap of faith that illustrated a growing self-confidence.

"He's doing landscaping. He's doing great now," Mr. Krausher said.

One woman who recently moved in had lived on the street for seven years. Many didn't think she would stick, but six months later she is still there -- slowly normalizing her life. Among her challenges is simply learning how to be a good neighbour. There are few reference points for that when you are sleeping in back alleys.

The focus in Mr. Krausher's facility (rents go from a low of $125 a month to a high of 30 per cent of an individual's income, and are subsidized by B.C. Housing) is on keeping people in their homes so they can stabilize their lives.

"Safe, secure housing is the base of the triangle," Mr. Krausher said. "The purpose of social housing is to get people in, to give them a foundation, so they can get to the next level. We're a stepping stone."

Rolf Auer, 52, is an example of how a life can change by the simple act of getting a decent place to live. He resides in a subsidized apartment not in Mr. Krausher's complex, where he's built his own support network.

"I actually lived in the forest for quite a while," Mr. Auer said. "I was camping out there, in the spring, summer and fall. In the winter, I'd come in to the city and live in shelters."

His health suffered and eventually he moved into a single-room occupancy hotel in the Downtown Eastside.

"I was in a 10-by-10 room for three years," he said. "Those rooms are so small you can't walk around in them."

He had a single hot plate and found it difficult to prepared balanced meals. He put his name on a waiting list for social housing, and after three years, was given the chance to move into a subsidized, single bedroom apartment just off Commercial Drive.

"It changed things in a number of ways," he said. "After becoming comfortable for a while, I signed up for a course . . . and I got casual work as an office clerk. I'm able to work now."

Recently, he joined a gym and has started to work out.

Diagnosed with diabetes shortly after he moved into the apartment, he found that neighbours in the building cared about him and were there to provide help and advice. He'd never had that kind of support before.

Mr. Auer doesn't know where he'd be if he had remained stuck in a cheap hotel room, or was living outside, but there is a good chance he might be dead.

One thing he does know is that the Coast Foundation Society, which provides his subsidized housing in conjunction with B.C. Housing, has had a profound impact on his life.

"When I moved into subsidized housing, I was able to marshal up enough confidence to look for work. So it made a huge difference," he said.

Hal, 56, who asked that his last name not be used, moved into a social-housing unit in another complex. He said it is hard to explain what it means to have a home.

He had been living in a single-room-occupancy hotel in the Downtown Eastside, where he had a tiny fridge, a sink and a hotplate for a kitchen. The bathroom was down the hall.

"I can cook my own food now," he said, because his subsidized apartment has a stove. "I even eat steak sometimes, though I really can't afford to."

Mostly he appreciates that he doesn't face drug dealers in the hall, and doesn't have to deal with people who are shooting up, having sex or sleeping in the washroom.

Hal has chronic diabetes and kidney disease, which keeps him from working. But he does volunteer three days a week in the Downtown Eastside.

Across Canada, big cities such as Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal are all struggling with a homelessness crisis. There are no easy ways to tackle a massive, complex problem when an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 people are homeless nationally.

But while governments here are groping for answers, there have already been great successes in several U.S. cities and throughout Britain with the housing-first approach.

Housing first puts people into safe, secure, subsidized units where they can get support to cope with, for example, drug addiction, mental illness or physical ailments.

"There is a solution to homelessness that is working in other North American cities and can be effective in Vancouver," the City of Vancouver's homeless action plan says, "and this is to build much more 'supportive housing' -- affordable housing linked to support services.

"Canada is falling behind the U.K. and the U.S. in providing low-cost housing. It's incredible what the U.S., even under a conservative government, is doing," said Jill Davidson, homeless policy co-ordinator for Vancouver.

"In San Francisco, there has been a 28-per-cent reduction in the homeless. In Philadelphia, it's 60 per cent. In the U.K., there has been a 78-per-cent reduction.

"We know what needs to be done. It's about getting the funds to do it."

A series of studies done over the past year by the City of Vancouver, the Pivot Legal Society and the Greater Vancouver Regional District have laid out a series of proposals for tackling the homelessness problem. They all agreed more social housing is needed.

Here are some key recommendations that emerge from a synthesis of that material and numerous interviews with sources close to the issue:

The federal, provincial and municipal governments must maintain existing low-income housing stock and significantly increase the number of new, permanent social-housing units. At least 1,200 new social housing units a year are needed in B.C.

The government must adjust welfare rates to reflect rising costs so that people can afford to pay rent and purchase food.

The government must create market incentives for developers to include low-income housing in new projects.

Because 30 per cent of the homeless are aboriginal (while natives make up only 4 per cent of the general population), the government must increase funding specifically for programs that provide emergency, transition, supportive and permanent housing for aboriginals.

Vancouver Coastal Health must aggressively inspect and prosecute landlords for infestations of mould, bugs and rodents. The city should offer free bed-bug-spraying services.

Public washrooms must be introduced in Vancouver on a large scale.

What it all comes down to is that a massive effort must be made to increase social housing. And once people are grounded in safe, secure housing, they need access to supportive programs that will help them find work and deal with their mental health and addiction problems.

But it has to be housing first.

And if governments want to know how to get from here to there, all they have to do is listen to their own experts -- the social planners at city hall or the GVRD, and to the poverty activists, such as those at Pivot Legal Society and the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, who have been saying these things for a long time.

A growing housing gap and a way to close it

The amount of new permanent subsidized housing in British Columbia has fallen sharply t his decade, with waiting lists climbing sharply above the levels of the late 1990s.

The B. C. Housing Program started in 1994, and new funding was cancelled in 2002. All existing program funding will be spent by the end of 2006.

The NDP estimates that it would cost the province $ 40million to close the housing gap completely, while building 1,200 permanent subsidized housing units would cost $ 20-million.

But a poll from The Strategic Counsel indicates that Vancouver residents are willing to pay much more than that if it will help to solve the homelessness crisis. According to the poll, more than a third of respondents would pay between $50 and $99 a year in additional taxes - worth at least $99-million and as much as $197-million a year if all B. C. taxpayers were to accept such a levy.

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What action would you support to deal with homelessness in Vancouver?**

More social housing and shelters: 23%

More addiction and mental health treatment programs: 22%

More institutions where the mentally ill and addicted homeless could be placed: 21%

More job training and job creation programs directed at the homeless: 21%

Tougher laws to get the homeless off the streets: 5%

A higher minimum wage: 4%

Higher welfare rates: 2%

Don't know: 3%

***

How willing would you be to pay higher taxes to deal with the issue of homelessness in Vancouver?

Willing: 63%

Not willing: 35%

Don't know: 2%

***

How much more are you prepared to pay in taxes to deal with the issue of homelessness in Vancouver?

Between $20 and $49 a year : 27%

Under $20 a year: 8%

$500 a year or more: 5%

Between $100 and $499 a year : 21%

Between $50 and $99 a year: 36%

Don't know: 3%

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** Numbers may not add up to 100 due to rounding

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SOURCE: THE STRATEGIC COUNSEL, BRITISH COLUMBIA NEW DEMOCRATIC CAUCUS. CA

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Series schedule

Monday

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

Tuesday

An unnatural disaster:

Don't blame Vancouver's climate

Wednesday

Suburban sprawl: The homeless outside of the Eastside

Today

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

Tomorrow

But is there a will?

Victoria and city hall react

Follow our five-part series

on globeandmail.com,

on CKNW radio and on CTV News.

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