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Finding shelter in the political storm

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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.

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