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Shovelling with Mayor Sam

Stalled homeless units finally jarred loose. Pols scramble for credit.

Monte Paulsen 19 May

Monte Paulsen is a contributing editor at The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback via e-mail ([email protected]), and invites you to participate in the online discussion happening below.

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From left: Linda Thomas, Vancouver Coastal Health; Peter Dueck, More than a Roof; Mayor Sam Sullivan; MLA Claude Richmond, subbing for Rich Coleman; and MP Ed Fast, subbing for Monte Solberg.

Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan brought a custom-built shovel to Friday's groundbreaking at 1321 Richards St., where construction will soon begin on 87 new units of supportive housing. The 10-storey building, which will be managed by More Than a Roof Mennonite Housing Society in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health, will offer precisely the type of support services proven effective in helping people at risk of homelessness and those recovering from alcohol or drug dependencies.

"This is the beginning of turning the tide against homelessness," Sullivan said, shortly before helping to wielding his three-metre shovel, into which he promised to carve a notch each time he breaks ground on new social housing.

BC Housing will put $6.6 million toward the $17.7 million project. The rest of the money with flow from four sources: $3.6 million from the City of Vancouver, plus the land valued at $1.5 million; $2.7 million from The Vancouver Agreement; $2.1 million from Vancouver Coastal Health, and $1.3 million from Ottawa.

The new and the old

Through the Provincial Homelessness Initiative BC Housing has expanded its portfolio by 61 new housing developments in 22 communities. But in Vancouver most of those units are converted SRO rooms rather than new construction such as Kindred Place.

Sullivan's stretch shovel doesn't reach quite as far back as the history of this project, however. The City of Vancouver purchased 1321 Richards in 1997, and construction of this same development was scheduled to begin in the summer of 2002. But the Mennonite rooms on Richards were among the more than 1,189 units of social housing scrapped by the BC Liberals in the first year of Premier Gordon Campbell's government. Since resuscitating the project, Campbell and Sullivan have taken credit for the new supportive housing at 1321 Richards over and over and over again.

A report released in March by the Inner-City Inclusive Housing Table warned against just this sort of political jockeying: "...unless this issue is tackled quickly through a focused program as set out in the report, the [homeless] problem will become larger, more visible, and increasingly difficult to solve."

The Housing Table report, which was requested -- and subsequently ignored by VANOC, calls for the construction of 3,200 units of new social housing, the acquisition (or rental) of an additional 800 units, and the conversion of hundreds of units of athlete and worker housing into low-income housing after the games.

October is 'do or die'

"October is do-or-die month for the Olympic host governments," said David Eby, who tracks homelessness for the Pivot Legal Society. "If the shovels aren't in the ground by October for the start of a huge new social housing build, we can expect to have at least triple the homeless population we had at the last homeless count in Vancouver come 2010."

Mayor Sullivan also took advantage of Friday's groundbreaking to congratulate himself on his surprising selection of former B.C. attorney-general Geoff Plant as Vancouver's first Civil City Commissioner.

When Sullivan announced the position late last year, he cited evidence from U.S. cities where so-called "homelessness czars" have been credited with helping to reduce American street sleeping over the past decade. In that context, Plant's appointment was surprising. Not only does Plant have absolutely no experience fighting homelessness, but from 2001 to 2005 he was part of Premier Campbell's inner circle, a group now viewed as the creators of what has become North America's fastest-growing homelessness crisis.

Plant was also involved with cuts to legal assistance for poor defendants, and passage of the Safe Streets Act, which restricted panhandling and banned squeegee kids.

Death in a dumpster

Meanwhile, the homeless continue dying on Vancouver streets. The passing of the irrepressible Chris Giroux was particularly poignant: Giroux suffocated to death in a downtown dumpster.

In the "things could be worse" category, Vancouverites might look to Surrey. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, which contributed the smallest share of the 1321 Richards project, recently issued a press release promising "New funding will help to move towards homelessness solutions in Surrey."

So what did Prime Minister Harper bestow upon Surrey? A supportive housing project? Support services for recovering addicts?

Nope. Surrey got a minivan.

Coming up this week in The Tyee is a special report by Monte Paulsen that will explain why there will likely be more homeless people than athletes on Vancouver's streets during the 2010 Winter Games, and what the province could do to prevent it.

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