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Finding shelter in the political storm

Sullivan presses for help from Ottawa; Strahl says national strategy is needed

From Friday's Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — Shortly after Francis McAllister, a homeless man, died on the streets of Vancouver during a cold snap last December, 400 extra emergency shelter beds were made available to give people warm places to sleep.

But on the anniversary of his death this year there were still people sleeping on the streets and shelters were once again overflowing.

A series of stories this week in The Globe and Mail, on CTV and on CKNW highlighted the continuing homelessness crisis in Greater Vancouver and looked for solutions.

Over the past few days, leading politicians were asked for their response to the situation, in which an estimated 2,174 people are living on the streets of Greater Vancouver, double the number counted in 2002.

With the number of homeless projected to triple by 2010, with tourism operators complaining that business is being affected and with conventions being cancelled because of the street scene, politicians said they are viewing the situation with growing urgency.

Mayor Sam Sullivan was interviewed while he was in Ottawa for a whirlwind series of meetings, involving several ministers and the Conservative caucus, at which he was pressing for action on the homelessness crisis.

"I've been talking about it non-stop here," he said.

Mr. Sullivan said he pushed his message in Ottawa about the need for action before the Olympic Games arrive in Vancouver, when he hopes to have reduced the number of homeless by at least half.

"I've put together a small video presentation that I've been showing people," he said. "In 2010, Vancouver will represent Canada. The video had some very graphic scenes of homelessness. It drove home the point that we need the attention of the federal government, we need the help of the federal government, and the federal government should be motivated to act."

Mr. Sullivan said the film got the kind of reaction he wanted.

"I got a very favourable response . . . I left each meeting here heartened," he said.

The homelessness crisis in Vancouver was exacerbated by a federal government decision in 1993 to cancel a program that provided provinces with two-thirds of the funding for new social housing.

Mr. Sullivan said federal politicians appear to see the need to do more to support social housing, among other things.

"There is going to be an announcement on housing . . . We had some discussions on what that might involve. It's imminent. There will be something within the next couple of months," he said.

"I'm optimistic there will be good news for the city."

Mr. Sullivan said he couldn't discuss details, but he has been stressing in both Ottawa and Victoria the need for senior levels of government to work with municipalities to provide more social housing, and housing that is linked to supportive services, particularly for mental-health and drug-addiction problems.

Chuck Strahl, the federal Minister of Agriculture and the senior minister for B.C., said his political colleagues got Mr. Sullivan's message and several responses are being considered.

"It is a problem. Of course, the homelessness problem is not simply homelessness. There's a series of problems that ended up on the streets and so I think it has caught people's attention because it involves homelessness, it also involves everything from aggressive panhandling to drug addiction to some aboriginal issues. There's lots of problems mixed in with this and it's sometimes called homelessness but there's a series of problems and probably a multitude of things need to happen," he said.

Mr. Strahl said the problem is complex, but not unsolvable.

"It won't be addressed with money alone but obviously some money is going to help. Mostly I think we need a national strategy. Or part of it will be a national strategy. . . . It's clear to me that this homelessness issue is going to involve all levels of government. And it's going to involve other agencies outside of the government. And it's gong to involve several strategies that have to be implemented at once."

Rich Coleman, the B.C. Minister Responsible for Housing, also said the key to solving the homelessness crisis is for all three levels of government to work together -- and for communities in general to buy into the program.

"What we're doing basically is we're trying to build the partnerships that are needed," said Mr. Coleman, whose government has recently committed $21-million to build 344 social housing units in the Downtown Eastside.

The City of Vancouver, however, has estimated it needs 800 new units of social housing a year to meet the growing demand.

Mr. Coleman said one of the things that has been holding up new social housing is the difficulty in getting zoning approval, with many community groups opposed to any social housing that would draw people with drug and mental-health problems into their neighbourhoods.

"Even though I may have capital, and money and operating costs available for shelters in communities, we always run up to the challenge of when local government tries to rezone they get these very well-packed public hearings with people that are opposed to it for whatever reason," he said.

"I would like society first of all to realize that they are part of the solution. And that means if you have this issue in your community, which many of you do, then you need to help us find solutions. That doesn't mean it's somebody else's problem and you can turn your back and ignore it. Because you know governments can [only] do so much."

Like Mr. Sullivan, Mr. Coleman said more supportive housing is needed.

"If you look at the homeless mix, the hardest [to house] isn't the person that's unemployed and has some minor literacy problems . . . it's the people that . . . have multiple barriers, whether it be addictions or mental illness and those folks can't find a home in the normal housing market.

So that's why I'm expanding even our investment in our existing stock to make more and more of our units available for big supportive housing, with those service attached, so that we can help the hard to house."

Mr. Coleman is optimistic government initiatives can bring dramatic improvements in the near future.

"I believe that over the next 12 to 24 months you should see a marked change. Mainly because of the fact that we are making this connection for people to services [in supportive housing]," he said.

"I think that we'll be fine for 2010. I do believe that we have the right people in place, we have the right vision and we have the dollars backing it up provincially, for the provincial housing strategy. And we have the right partners, whether it be the City of Vancouver or other cities, in many cases that are prepared to work with us, to be able to identify how we can move these things quickly."

But NDP Leader Carole James, who has been talking for years about the need for a major government initiative on homelessness, isn't so sure.

"I'm ashamed of the fact that we see those numbers of people living on the street. When you see children living in poverty, it's just not acceptable . . . But the government still doesn't seem to get it."

She says the situation is getting worse, not better, while the government is still talking about what to do.

Single-room occupancy hotels are closing or being converted to other uses in Vancouver, she noted, which means the stock of affordable housing is going to decline between now and 2010.

That trend, together with a pull-back on social housing that started in the early 1990s, has created a substantial "housing gap," with a shortfall of about 2,500 units in B.C.

"I think the first thing that has to happen is that the government has to get back into building affordable housing. . . . We're saying just address that need; get on with it now," she said.

"There is a direct correlation between the federal and provincial governments stepping away from affordable housing and the crisis we now face," she said.

"That [building social housing] is the first step. The second step is to increase shelter rates," she said.

Those on basic social assistance in British Columbia get a shelter allowance of $325 a month and a living allowance of $185. Those rates haven't changed since they were established in 1994, although Premier Gordon Campbell had promised increases in the next budget.

"Don't wait until the spring and the next budget. That's just cruel. Make a change to those shelter rates now," Ms. James said.

This is the final instalment of a special five-part Globe series on homelessness in Vancouver. Read the entire series online at globeandmail.com

Left behind with last resorts

"My friend has called all of the shelters on the list of shelters I have with me to find space, and all of the shelters are full. I will stay in a tent in Stanley Park tonight." -- Sara Upshaw, homeless person, in an affidavit with Pivot Legal Society

"The last resort is the Contact Centre; you can stay there for the night, but they only allow 10 chairs and you can't lie down. You can sleep, if you sit in a chair. . . . There are big lines to get into the shelters, so you often get turned away." -- Dave Lindsay, homeless person, in an affidavit with Pivot Legal Society

"I stay in different places outside, usually a different place every night, away from the public. I'll go anywhere." -- Gordie Goodman, homeless person, in an affidavit with Pivot Legal Society

"From half a block away, she appeared clean and well dressed. We were going to keep walking, but something drew me to her. Originally from Kelowna, she's 18 and has been homeless and on the streets of Vancouver since she turned 16 and was kicked out of a foster home. She hasn't been able to get a youth agreement, says she had trouble with the paperwork. Unable to qualify for social assistance, she's turned to prostitution for income and multiple drugs to forget. . . ." -- Interviewer with the Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia in a 2005 report on the Greater Vancouver homeless count

"A fellow we met at the Station Skytrain station told us he was sleeping rough and trying to get his life back together. He was in his mid-50s. He told us about his career as a construction worker. He pointed to several tall buildings in the area and told us how he had worked on each of them." -- Interviewer with the Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia in a 2005 report on the Greater Vancouver homeless count

"I approached the sleeping bag under the Cambie Street Bridge at 5:30 a.m. and said hello. The man inside was startled, but calmed down very quickly once he woke up. He was in his 60s and said he'd always slept outside. He didn't stay in shelters because of the rules and the other people that stay there. It can be noisy. He also wanted to stay away from the Downtown Eastside. He said he didn't have any problems with mental illness and wasn't addicted to anything, except maybe a bit of alcohol. Pension and Old Age Security were his main sources of income. . . ." -- Interviewer with the Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia in a 2005 report on the Greater Vancouver homeless count

Staff

CALLING VICTORIA

Politicians may debate which body bears the most responsibility for tackling homelessness, but Vancouver residents put that burden squarely on the shoulders of the provincial government, according to a poll by The Strategic Counsel. The survey 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.

Which one of the following groups do you think is most responsible for finding solutions to Vancouver's homelessness problem?

The provincial government: 43%

City hall: 18%

Charitable organizations: 11%

The homeless: 7%

The federal government: 12%

Individual citizens acting with other concerned people: 6%

Don't know: 3%

SOURCE: STRATEGIC COUNSEL

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