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Homeless, Housing Stats Disputed

Minister Coleman's figures are 'bogus' says NDP critic.

By Andrew MacLeod 24 Jan 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria.

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David Chudnovsky: 'preposterous'

Victoria mayor Alan Lowe called a Jan. 22 housing announcement a "watershed" moment for the capital city in its fight against rising homelessness, but critics say the province is overstating the amount it is helping while continuing to underestimate the problem provincewide.

By Forest and Housing Minister Rich Coleman's count, the Victoria announcement represents 170 "new and upgraded" units.

Doing the math while Coleman was still talking, NDP housing critic David Chudnovsky said, "We have the announcement of 73 units of housing today. That's what we have."

Mayor Lowe in an interview later said, "The net's 127."

City councillor Dean Fortin put the figure at 75 new units, but added that while the announcement was small, at least it was positive. "For the first time, we're seeing a step forward in the city of Victoria," he said. "It's a good news story for the city of Victoria. We've been going backwards for the last six years."

What counts?

To figure out what each person is talking about, it's necessary to look at the details of the three projects:

To get Coleman's and B.C Housing's 170 number, you have to include shelter beds as "housing," and not subtract any of the beds or units that are being lost.

Chudnovsky and Fortin's figures are closer to the mark. The net gain, after accounting for units that either already exist or are closing, is 79 housing units and 25 shelter beds.*

Coleman wasn't saying how much the government is spending on the three projects, but Lowe said the commitment is $30 million. For each of the units or shelter beds the city will gain, therefore, the province is spending in the order of $380,000.

'It's about people'

During a scrum following the announcement, Coleman said, "It's not about cutting a ribbon. It's about people."

But while Coleman's estimate of how many people his government is helping is clearly high, he also may be underestimating the problem. Asked by The Tyee just how many people are homeless in the province, Coleman said, "The estimate I have from B.C. Housing is that between 4,500 and 5,500 are homeless at any given time in B.C."

B.C. Housing failed to confirm the minister's number or to say how it was arrived at. The agency's spokesperson, Sam Rainboth, took the question but did not call back by deadline.

Chudnovsky has been pushing Coleman since the fall to count how many people are homeless in the province, but until Tuesday the minister had refused a figure. "It is heartening that he's finally, after four months, coming up with a number," Chudnovsky said. "His number is bogus.... It's a preposterous number."

Opposition tallies 10,500 homeless

The critic has done his own count, relying on figures from homelessness surveys and aid workers across the province. Victoria's last survey counted 1,550 homeless, he said. Vancouver has 2,300. Another 1,050 are on the streets of Prince George. In total, he said, "We have more than 10,500 homeless."

That number is conservative, he added. In the survey, for instance, he included 290 homeless people in Kelowna. But last week he was in the Okanagan city and the municipal official responsible for social development told him the number is closer to 500 there, he said. "When we say our numbers are conservative, we're not kidding."

But even using Coleman's numbers, Chudnovsky said, it is clear there's a long way to go. "He'd have to make 60 more announcements like this. I don't see them coming."

Homeless barred

Several homeless people who came to Tuesday's announcement at the Downtown Activity Centre were barred from entering the hall.

"Again, it's closed doors," said Paul Burnside, a poet and homeless person who was refused entry. "The people it's about aren't allowed to go in."

David Arthur Johnston, a homeless man who is fighting the city's anti-camping bylaws in court, was also left on the sidewalk. "It's more crap that's not going to amount to anything," he said. "It's going to amount to more suffering on the streets."

Rose Henry was allowed inside, where she filmed proceedings for the Homeless Nation website. Henry has been homeless off and on in recent years, though she now has a place to live. After hearing the minister and mayor speak, she said, "It's not enough, but I want to give the city credit for taking the initiative at this point."

A member of the ad hoc Committee to End Homelessness, Phil Lyons, said at least six others from his group had been turned away. "The security on the door was making a judgement call," he said, basing their decisions on people's appearances. Once inside, he was disappointed by what he heard, he said. "This is a token operation. They're doing a very little bit to show they've done something for homeless people."

*The units from the Ellice Street facility were added to this story at 1:50 p.m. on the day it was published.

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