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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."

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