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Vancouver mayor fails to meet goal of ending ‘street homelessness’

Provincial and federal governments could do more says Gregor Robertson

After counting 10 homeless people in a span of two-and-a-half hours along the Commercial Drive corridor Tuesday morning, Mayor Gregor Robertson conceded he has not met his goal of ending “street homelessness” by 2015.

Robertson, who participated in the city’s two-day homeless count this week, set his goal of finding homes for hundreds of people living on the street shortly after he was first elected in 2008.

“It was a big challenging goal to set for the city and I have absolutely no regrets about doing that,” Robertson told reporters outside the Kettle Friendship Society drop-in centre near Commercial and Venables. “We’ve pushed very hard and had great success getting many people in off the streets. We have to continue that work. It doesn’t end today. That was never the intention with this.”

Though he credited the provincial government for its commitment to build 14 supportive housing buildings in Vancouver, the mayor said the province and the federal government could do more to help solve homelessness.

“It would be great to see more vigorous advocacy from the province to the federal government,” he said in response to a question related to Housing Minister Rich Coleman previously telling the Courier the province has built more supportive housing in Vancouver than any jurisdiction in Canada. Supportive housing is defined as social housing in which tenants can access health care and other services.

NPA Coun. George Affleck, whose party has repeatedly criticized Robertson for making a promise he couldn’t keep, wasn’t surprised when told of the mayor’s acknowledgement that Vancouver still has people living on the streets.

Affleck said it was “an impossible commitment” to make when the biggest providers of funding for housing — the provincial and federal governments — were unwilling to make the same promise to end street homelessness by 2015.

“There was no way we could have done this on our own as a city, and he should have known that,” said Affleck, who noted it was the previous NPA administration of then-mayor Sam Sullivan that secured a deal with the provincial government to identify more than a dozen city sites on which to build supportive housing.

When Robertson and his Vision Vancouver council won power in 2008 and began its rule at city hall, the city’s homeless count that year showed a total of 1,576 people without a permanent home, with 811 living on the street.

The mayor’s move to open winter shelters with funding from the provincial government and purchase or lease temporary housing — along with the gradual opening of 14 supportive housing buildings — saw the overall homeless population remain steady in the 1,600 range from 2011 to 2013 and fewer people living on the street.In fact, 154 people were recorded living on the street in 2011.

But in 2012, those numbers began to increase with 306 recorded in 2012 and 273 in 2013.

Then in 2014, the Metro Vancouver homeless count revealed that Vancouver’s homeless population had reached it highest overall level in history, with 1,267 people living in some form of shelter and 536 on the street for a grand total of 1,803 people.

Since then, the city kept its shelters open, added temporary housing largely with former hotels and saw the B.C. government open more permanent housing. On paper, the simple math shows the city has moved more than 500 people off the street and should have a surplus of 29 beds, city manager Penny Ballem told the Courier earlier this month.

"My hope would be that we've just about reached the goal for the mayor," Ballem said at the time. "But looking around the city, I'm worried. It doesn't feel like we've got there."

“My hope would be that we’ve just about reached the goal for the mayor,” she said. “But looking around the city, I’m worried. It doesn’t feel like we’ve got there.”

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Both Ballem and Robertson have pointed to the city’s growing mental illness and addiction crisis, the lack of affordable housing, a low welfare shelter rate, young people leaving foster care with no home to go to and Vancouver's temperate climate as factors related to people continuing to live on the street.

Tony, who wouldn’t provide his surname, listened to the mayor’s comments during a media scrum before he visited the Kettle Friendship Society for a meal. The 51-year-old refugee from El Salvador said he was homeless for a couple of years before recently finding an apartment.

He said he receives about $600 a month in income assistance, with $425 of that spent on rent for a place he said is infested with cockroaches and rodents.

“It’s good to hear he wants to help but he has to see the reality of what life is like for people,” said Tony, noting he prays for the young homeless people he sees along Commercial Drive. “The rent goes up and up, I have not much money for food. So why do you think there’s so many homeless?”

Ethel Whitty, the city’s director of homelessness services, said about 90 volunteers visited shelters Monday night and another 350 would be doing head counts and collecting information from the city’s homeless until 10 p.m. Tuesday night.

“We know there are homeless people on the streets — we know that,” Whitty said. “Whether it’s up or down from last year, I can’t really hazard a guess. There’re so many factors that play into it.”

Results of the homeless count are expected to go before council in July.

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