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A home is where the hope is

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"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.

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