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Penny Ballem: Ending street homelessness by 2015 ‘not magical thinking’

City manager Penny Ballem outlined a series of projects and funding expectations this week that have to fall in place over the next year to achieve the mayor’s stated goal of getting all people living on the street into some form of shelter by 2015.
homeless
City manager Penny Ballem outlined a plan this week for the city to get all people living on the street into shelter by 2015. Photo Dan Toulgoet

City manager Penny Ballem outlined a series of projects and funding expectations this week that have to fall in place over the next year to achieve the mayor’s stated goal of getting all people living on the street into some form of shelter by 2015.

Ballem told city council Tuesday a combination of new housing, keeping open existing temporary housing and shelters and providing rent supplements to homeless people and displaced tenants of single-room-occupancy hotels under renovation are keys to ending street homelessness by next year.

“This is not magical thinking,” said Ballem, pointing to an end date as the March 2015 homeless count. “It will require some resources but it absolutely can be done.”

The last homeless count in March revealed Vancouver had the largest homeless population in its history, with 538 living on the street and 1,260 in some form of shelter for a total of 1,798 people.

Factoring in a one per cent annual population growth, Ballem put the street homelessness number at 542 people for next year. The city’s plan to get all those people off the street requires:

  • The former Bosman hotel on Howe Street recently used as a federal government-funded housing experiment for people suffering from mental illness to remain open to house homeless people.
  • The opening of a city project called Taylor Manor. It’s for 45 people suffering from mental health and addictions and located at Adanac and Boundary.
  • The former Ramada hotel on East Hastings to continue operating as temporary housing and the former Biltmore hotel at 395 Kingsway to be fully occupied.
  • The opening of three B.C. Housing social housing sites totalling 385 units at 111 Princess St., 2465 Fraser St. and 220 Princess St.

Those requirements, along with the B.C. government funding 160 winter shelter beds and 100 rent supplements, could mean the city for the first time in recent history would have a surplus of 231 units available for homeless people.

Even without the former 100-unit Bosman Hotel or the 147-unit project at 220 Princess St. — which the Courier recently revealed was facing significant construction delays — fully occupied by March 2015, the city would still see a gain of 33 units, according to Ballem.

“You can see it’s complicated — it’s a moving base of metrics but we absolutely have a handle on them, we know exactly where things are and we are working hard to engage all of our partners in making sure we stay ahead of the shifts and changes,” she said.

In her presentation, Ballem pointed out the provincial government is improving strategies to prevent the drivers of homelessness, including finding shelter for youth leaving foster care, criminals being discharged from prisons and homeless people leaving hospitals.

“What we know and in the work we’ve done with Streetohome [Foundation], is that there really weren’t a lot of clear strategies in place,” she said in explaining why the homeless count in March revealed Vancouver’s homeless population reached an all-time high.

After the meeting, NPA Coun. George Affleck predicted Mayor Gregor Robertson would fail to meet his goal of ending street homelessness by 2015. Affleck pointed out overall homelessness continues to increase and the mayor went from in 2008 to promising to end homelessness to changing the terminology to “street homelessness.”

“They continue to spin this stuff in order to stay in power,” said Affleck, who is seeking re-election in November and noted it was the previous NPA government that set aside the majority of the 14 city-owned sites that have been built or under construction for social housing.

Robertson said he was disappointed to hear Affleck “trashing” the city’s strategy to end street homelessness, which decreased from 811 unsheltered people when Vision was elected in 2008 to 538 this year; the lowest street homeless population was recorded at 154 in 2011.

“We’ve had great all-party support for homelessness and affordable housing initiatives for many years at council, and to hear Coun. Affleck in particular lash out and really undermine the work around homelessness and affordable housing is really disappointing,” Robertson told reporters. “That’s something that’s shifted and shows the direction of the NPA at an important time.”

mhowell@vancourier.com