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Mayoral homelessness debate: reporter’s notebook

Vancouver’s two mayoral candidates spoke to a packed church last night about homelessness and affordable housing, issues that polls show are high on voters’ minds.

Along the way Gregor Robertson unveiled new details of his Vision party’s homeless program, NPA’s Peter Ladner revealed the city was dipping “heavily” into its endowment fund just to finish the first phase of Southeast False Creek, and the two could not agree on whether Ladner had supported perhaps the most important piece of homeless legislation passed by council in the past half decade.

At least a thousand people listened raptly inside St. Andrews-Wesley United Church in the West End, as debate moderator Minister Rick Matthews told of the morning ritual at his First United Church on Hastings Street: having to wake the hundred people who spend the night in the pews there and send them out into increasingly cold weather.

Matthews noted that of the 1800 estimated homeless in Vancouver, 20 per cent are mentally ill, half have problems with addiction, half are chronically homeless and every week another person dies on the street.

And then the NPA’s Peter Ladner and Vision’s Gregor Robertson were asked to present their approaches to the crisis.

Robertson offered more details than previously, laying out a seven step program that included: Insuring enough shelter beds to move people off the street; using city bylaws to keep buildings open and in decent condition at owners’ expense; improving outreach services to the homeless; establishing a mental health advocate to coordinate services and providers; more training to help street youth learn work and life skills; protect the current level of rental units and lobby to change provincial tenants’ rights laws; strengthen relations with other levels of government to “assure they live up to their responsibilities.”

Ladner emphasized the importance of “the people of faith community who pour their hearts and souls into these issues” and noted his own church, Christchurch Cathedral, partners with the city on a homeless initiative. Warming to a theme he carried through the evening, Ladner argued the stretched city was doing more than any other in Canada and would need money from other sources to make much more progress. But he painted a good news picture of the BC Liberals on “a spending binge” for social housing in Vancouver.

Ladner said he would stick to the three goals of Vancouver’s homeless action plan, which he summarized as: Increasing income by fast-tracking homeless people to welfare and pressing Victoria for higher shelter and welfare allowances; providing more supportive housing; ramping up addiction and mental health services.

Next up, the candidates, as required, provided one-sentence answers to questions from a panel made up of journalists Monte Paulsen and Frances Bula, and Nancy Hall, who was B.C.'s first appointed Mental Health Advocate. Within a few minutes of that rapid-fire format some of what was learned included:

Robertson would spend taxpayer money on hiring a mental health advocate; Ladner would not.

Ladner would not fund a third safe injection site joined to transitional housing until “someone” convinced him it was needed; Robertson would fund it immediately.

Robertson would “look at” establishing a minimum “living wage” of $16.50 an hour for city workers; Ladner considered it a no go because of budget concerns.

As the evening progressed and the candidates were given more time to answer questions from the panelists, they sparred over how many new shelters should be built. Ladner preferred “strategic and thoughtful” investment in more long term solutions. Robertson drew some cheers for retorting that “there’s nothing strategic and thoughtful about forcing people to sleep outside.”

Ladner hammered Robertson’s contention that his program wouldn’t mean higher taxes, pointing out that his fellow Vision council candidate Raymond Louie has already pledged 130 new police officers. And when Robertson said the city could subsidize middle and low income housing by taking a smaller price on parcels it sells to developers, Ladner noted that the Olympic Village project may have fetched a hefty price, but “the project is struggling now. The city is investing heavily from the city endowment fund just to get it finished.”

Robertson maintained his “solution won’t be expensive for the city” and promised, rather than raise taxes, he would find offsetting savings by curtailing “profligate spending” by the NPA dominated council.

When Ladner took credit for helping to create what he said were 3800 units of social housing were in the pipeline, Robertson called the figure “smoke and mirrors.” Panelist Paulsen, a Tyee editor, said his own number crunching showed the vast majority of those units were either started by the previous council, were refurbished rather than new, or weren’t yet officially funded by the provincial government.

Ladner responded that every council takes credit for some of the work of its predecessor, the refurbished units had been “uninhabitable,” and he had no doubt the province would carry through on all the funding it had promised, even as economic clouds gather.

In the meantime, Ladner said, perhaps the city should look into building temporary modular housing on social housing sites that won’t be built out for years more.

Both candidates promised not to violate the civil rights of homeless people during the 2010 Games, and both thought the city should do more to locate and lease empty rooms to people without roofs over their heads.

But one major question the two couldn’t agree upon just before the debate wrapped up. The very homeless action plan that Ladner claimed his party was pursuing to good effect, Robertson accused Ladner of opposing when he was part of the NPA opposition. Not only that, said Robertson, Ladner and his team cut funding for the plan by $100,000 when they took power and had the chance.

Ladner bristled for the first time all evening saying, “I resent the fact that Mr. Robertson is passing off these falsehoods.” The $100,000 cut was understood to be temporary, he explained. And he denied ever opposing the original homeless action plan put forth when COPE ran City Hall.

Afterwards Geoff Meggs, the former aide to COPE mayor Larry Campbell now running for council with Vision, stated flatly that Ladner had voted against the measure. A veteran city hall journalist standing nearby nodded agreement.

Whatever the case (and The Tyee will check on it), such political gamesmanship seemed awkward beneath the vaulted ceilings of the cavernous church. What lingered in the mind hours later was instead a bit of recent history recounted by Rev. Matthews at the evening’s outset. He told of a friendly homeless man, well known to parishioners, who decided to slash his wrists in the church bathroom. He was saved when a church member saw blood flowing out from beneath the door. When the man had recovered, he returned, bandaged, to apologize for causing so much upset.

“Life on streets just isn’t something I can do any longer,” the man told Rev. Matthews. “I didn’t want to kill myself on the street where no one would know, no one would care. This church felt like home.”

David Beers is editor of The Tyee. The mayoral debate on homelessness and affordable housing was co-sponsored by The Tyee and 24 Hours Vancouver.

See also: Frances Bulas' account.

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