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No New Homes in Premier's Homelessness Plan

Coleman challenges cities to "step up."

Monte Paulsen 12 Oct

Monte Paulsen is a contributing editor at The Tyee. He welcomes feedback via e-mail and invites respectful commentary in the online discussion below.

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Donna Gorrill photograph from the just-released Hope in Shadows' calendar.

Premier Gordon Campbell has constructed an intricate array of innovative responses to B.C.'s sprawling homelessness crisis -- but he's not building more housing.

Campbell announced plans for longer shelter hours, wider street outreach programs, and more rent supplements at a well-attended news conference on Oct. 12. Together with Housing Minister Rich Coleman, he challenged municipal governments to speed up preparation of sites on which charities might fund supportive housing in the future.

"We're saying to municipalities, 'OK, you've got land. Get it ready in a year,'" Minister Coleman said. "The cities need to step up. The challenge is on them."

But conspicuously absent from Premier Campbell's announcement was any commitment to build new social housing.

"There was not one new home announced here today. Not one," said MLA David Chudnovsky, a New Democrat who serves as critic for homelessness.

"Let's call a spade a spade," said Vancouver City Councillor George Chow. "It is now clear that we are not going to meet our Olympic housing commitments. We can't do it. And that's our fault."

Shelters to stay open 24-7

Premier Campbell and Minister Coleman announced $41 million of new measures as part of the provincial effort to reduce homelessness:

-Fund shelters to remain open 24-7. By not sending homeless people back into the streets each morning, shelter workers hope to spend more time counselling clients about treatment options and housing alternatives.

Friday's announcement was delivered at Lookout Emergency Aid Society's Yukon Shelter, one of the few Vancouver shelters already open 'round-the-clock. Lookout executive director Karen O'Shannacery said, "Being open 24-7 provides people with better opportunities to find a more stable housing situation."

-Expand the province's street outreach project to a total of 27 communities. Modelled on Vancouver's successful outreach program, B.C.'s outreach workers have already moved more than 1,600 homeless people off the streets and into stable homes. The program will soon be extended to Campbell River, Comox, Courtenay, Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Nelson and Vernon. Additional funding will provide specific outreach to homeless Aboriginals.

-Provide rent supplements to help an additional 750 poor families afford market housing, expanding on a pilot program that is already housing 315 families.

-Fund pre-development work to make city-owned sites ready for construction by next fall. BC Housing has already had discussions with Vancouver, Surrey, Victoria and Kelowna about ways to fast-track their permitting processes.

"We're hoping the cities will work with us so we can have that pre-development done within a year," Campbell said. "We can then take those sites to people who want to invest, and say, 'All we need now is your financial commitment.' We believe we will be able to generate an additional 1,500 units of supportive housing in all areas of this province."

Can Vancouver act quickly?

Both Campbell and Coleman acknowledged that the fast-track challenge is aimed at cities like Vancouver, where social housing projects have lingered in planning stages for years.

Union Gospel Mission's proposal to build a new homeless shelter, soup kitchen and recovery centre in the Downtown Eastside has already been mired in Vancouver City Hall for almost two years, and the city does not expect its development board to take up that proposal until 2008.

Likewise, two of the three new supportive housing buildings for which the province has already announced funding continue to languish in the planning process. City officials do not expect work to begin at 337 Pender and 980 Hastings until sometime next year.

"Vancouver is unique," Coleman said, after the briefing. "A zoned site in Vancouver can still take 18 to 24 months to get in the ground."

"We're not pointing fingers," Campbell said separately. "We're going to go to all municipalities that have land, and we're saying, 'Let's get this land so that we can build housing on it. And let's not just say we are going to do it, let's actually give ourselves a time frame in which we will get it done."

Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan did not comment on the challenge during his short address on Friday, and did not participate in the press scrum afterward.

Councillor Chow, who grew up in the Downtown Eastside, doubted that Vancouver will be able to meet Campbell's one-year deadline.

"Given what we are doing right now, it's not realistic," Chow said. "I hope we could push it a bit faster. But I think it will be difficult. Because of the strike, we have so much work in the backlog."

High expectations dashed

Opposition critics and housing activists who had expected a major housing announcement were bitterly disappointed.

"It was pathetic," said the NDP's Chudnovsky. "If I were the premier, I would have been embarrassed to call this a major announcement."

Chudnovsky noted that the $41 million allotted for these programs totals exactly one one-hundredth of the provincial budget surplus.

"The VANOC committee called for 3,200 new units by 2010," Chudnovsky said. "And the premier announced today that maybe, by next year, maybe, they'll look at funding up to 1,500 units province-wide. That's unacceptable."

Pivot Legal Society attorney David Eby echoed Chudnovsky's disappointment.

"They best they could come up with was a plan to build social housing. But people can't live in plans. They need bricks and mortar," Eby said.

Eby noted that there are not even any new shelter beds in the premier's plan. Metro Vancouver shelters reported turning away homeless applications on 28,922 occasions between October 2005 and April 2006, the most recent period for which statistics are available. That's an average of 138 turn-aways each night.

"Today's announcement expands emergency programs for a homeless population that expanded directly as a result of this government's refusal to build social housing," Eby said.

Campbell and Coleman acknowledged that there were as many critics as supporters in the room.

"Critics are critics," Coleman said. "The reality is there is not a jurisdiction in this country that you can find that's as advanced on housing issues as we are in British Columbia today."

"There are always going to be people who never think it's enough," Campbell said. "It's good to have people who are constantly pushing you to do better. I'm one of those people."

Criticism to continue next week

The premier's announcement celebrated the one-year anniversary of Housing Matters BC, the provincial strategy through which Campbell's government is spending $328 million this year, in addition to the $41 million announced Friday.

But Campbell's innovative programming changes are unlikely to dim the chorus of criticism orchestrated as part of the Homelessness Action Week (see sidebar for more information).

Squatters began camping at 980 Main St. on Sunday afternoon. Minister Coleman announced the revival of a decade-old plan to build homeless housing on that site more than six month ago. The squatters raised a banner that read, "Empty lots. Empty promises."

On Saturday, six members of the radical Anti-Poverty Committee were arrested after they attempted to take over a shuttered SRO in the Downtown Eastside. At a Sunday rally, the controversial group vowed to launch another squat soon.

"We will resort to whatever means necessary to provide poor people with shelter," the committee warned in a faxed statement. "If the police forcefully prevent us from sheltering homeless women, we will wage an escalating campaign of direct action that will not doubt aggressively disrupt city hall."

At the opposite end of the decorum spectrum is a visit by the United Nations' special rapporteur on adequate housing, Miloon Kothari, who will listen to Vancouver's homeless and meet with government officials and Olympic organizers. Vancouver is one of four Canadian destinations for Kothari.

Headlining two of next week's many events is Gordon Laird, who authored a nationwide report entitled "Homelessness in a Growth Economy: Canada's 21st Century Paradox."

Laird found that between 200,000 and 300,000 Canadians are already homeless, while fully half of all Canadians live in fear of poverty.

"The widespread and rapid growth of homelessness in Canada since the mid-1990s is unprecedented in this nation's post-war history," Laird's report warns. "Shelter has become one of the defining social issues of Canada's new millennium."

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