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Temporary housing waiting on provincial funds, says mayor

VANCOUVER - Mayor Gregor Robertson is renewing the call for the provincial government to fund shelters and housing for Vancouver's neediest residents.

The HEAT shelters currently housing over 450 people a night are slated to close next Tuesday, and a city council-approved proposal for temporary housing units remains deadlocked awaiting provincial funding.

In a statement today, the Mayor described the temporary housing as the city's "Plan A" for homelessness:

That’s the solution we’re putting forward. Move people out of the shelters and into housing quickly. It is within our grasp. As the permanent housing that the province has invested in becomes completed over the next three to five years, people can move from the interim housing and into permanent housing.

From the streets to shelters, from shelters to interim housing, and from interim to permanent housing. That’s the plan we have, and we have put it to the Province. I’ve spoken to the Premier about it, I’ve spoken to [Housing] Minister Coleman….and I’m hopeful they’ll support it.

The controversial HEAT shelters -- established in vacant buildings in Vancouver's core -- were originally intended as a stop-gap measure over the winter, although the Mayor is now calling for them to be kept open indefinitely. Funding has already been extended once, but runs out at the end of the month.

To address concerns of local residents, Robertson promised that any "bad apples" -- those with a history of drug dealing, theft, or violence, as identified by Vancouver police -- would be banned from the shelter.

However, the city wants the shelters to be emergency housing only, and therefore created a plan for temporary housing which could support residents for two to three years until permanent social housing is constructed.

The city's plan requires $5 million a year of provincial funding, and the province has not yet made any commitments.

“I don’t know what the province’s strategy is,” said Vision Vancouver city councillor Kerry Jang.

“Right now everyone’s fixated on the shelters. But as far as we know, June 30 is the date all five close, and that means 450 some-odd folks back on the street,” he said.

The city approved $13 million of spending for 550 temporary housing units this April, and secured another $12 million in capital investments from the private sector. The proposal requested a total of $27.5 million from the provincial government for operating costs.

Some of the temporary units would be modular housing, while the others will include renovated hotels.

The city is ready to build these units as soon as funding is secured from the province and could have them up and running by winter, said Jang. Staff from the HEAT shelters could simply transition into the temporary units, he said.

But the government is still discussing the proposal and has not announced when the decision will be made.

The city is concerned that the temporary units will be pushed to the backburner if the province decides to keep the HEAT shelters open due to pressure from the community.

“If the shelters are the answer, then that’s wrong,” said Jang. “They said from the outset, they’re temporary... You can’t wait two years in a shelter.

“The way I look at it, the shelters were to ensure survival. The interim housing is there to ensure stability. And permanent housing brings recovery. Those are the three steps.”

The permanent housing however, also sits in limbo.

Of 14 city-owned sites slated by the city for permanent housing, only six have been approved for funding from the government. All of the sites have received their full permits or are in the final stages of the process.

The BC Ministry of Housing and Development said the remaining eight sites will be considered in the next cycle of capital funding.

Both the temporary and permanent housing projects can begin the moment funding is received, said Jang, adding the city has done everything it can and it’s now in the province’s hands.

“We’ve done our bit,” he said.

Christine McLaren reports for The Tyee. Amelia Bellamy-Royds contributed to this story.

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