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Vancouver’s private sector steps up to fight homelessness

After donating $500,000 last December to help open Vancouver’s new emergency shelters, the Streetohome Foundation made its official launch on Tuesday with another $750,000 in private funding for the homeless.

At a launch event at the Downtown Eastside’s District 319 theatre, the foundation announced it will give $250,000 toward the renovation of the 72-unit London Hotel on Main Street, which was recently purchased by the provincial government, and $500,000 toward renovations of the Aboriginal Mothers’ Centre, which will help create 16 units of transitional supportive housing.

“These projects are illustrative of what can be accomplished by working together in partnership with government and the non-profit sector,” said Jae Kim, president of the Streetohome Foundation.

The Streetohome Foundation was created last April with $1.5 million in seed money from the province, the city and the Vancouver Foundation ($500,000 from each). Based on similar models in Calgary, Toronto and New York, the organization brings together governments, non-profits, citizens and, particularly, the private sector to end homelessness by 2015.

“There are certainly a lot of people in this community, especially the private sector, that have wanted to do something about [homelessness], they just really didn’t know how to go about it,” Frank Giustra, president and CEO of the multi-billon dollar merchant banking firm Fiore Financial Corporation and a Streetohome board member, told The Tyee. “So we’re going to give them the means to do that.”

Streetohome has attracted some of the most successful business leaders in Vancouver and its board and committee members are virtually a list of the city’s power elite. The foundation’s success will depend on its ability to get convince the city’s rich that they can help end homelessness.

The foundation is considered the brainchild of the controversial Vancouver Homelessness Funding Model report, which was written by Ken Dobell and Donald Fairbairn in 2007 for the City of Vancouver and called for the creation of a foundation to solicit private-sector funding for housing.

Opposition councillors and poverty advocates criticized the plan and Dobell would be later charged, and then discharged, by the province for failing to register as a lobbyist with the city. The Streetohome Foundation eventually became part of Sam Sullivan’s equally controversial Project Civil City.

“Sure, some of these ideas are recognizable from our report,” Dobell told The Tyee. “But what matters is that this foundation is bringing these ideas to life. They’re getting it done.”

While the idea of a private-sector organization funding housing projects was initially greeted with some scepticism, it now appears that the foundation’s deep pockets has generated broad-based support—the Streetohome’s committees include an equal mix of business, government and non-profit leaders.

“It’s fundamental, I think, to our success in dealing with the crisis of homelessness we have right now to have the community and to have the philanthropic community as partners in it—those who have extra wealth to share, those who are committed to putting that wealth to good purpose,” said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson at the launch.

The shelter funding and the two new housing projects are part of Streetohome’s short-term strategy. The foundation is also developing a long-term strategy to end homelessness by 2015, which it plans to release later this spring.

Sean Condon is the editor of Megaphone Magazine. Tyee investigative editor Monte Paulsen contributed files to this story.

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