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Mike Howell: What ever happened to that homeless 'navigation centre' promised for Vancouver back in 2020?

First centre of its kind in Canada was supposed to be operating by spring 2021
The B.C. government promised in August 2020 that a 60-bed "navigation centre" for Vancouver's homeless people would be operating by spring 2021. It has yet to open.

Time for a checkup on a B.C. government promise made back in 2020 that was supposed to benefit Vancouver’s homeless population.

Regular readers may recall that then-minister responsible for housing, Selina Robinson, announced Aug. 5, 2020 that Vancouver was going to get the province’s first-ever “navigation centre” for homeless people.

In fact, it was supposed to be the first of its kind in Canada and be operating by spring 2021.

What’s a navigation centre?

Good question.

Until Robinson’s announcement, I had no idea what it was, either.

What it is — or supposed to be — is a building, or centre, set up to offer services that homeless people aren’t receiving in the city’s shelters.

As the news release stated back in 2020, the centre would offer 60 beds — on a referral basis only — and provide “integrated clinical health supports, as well as culturally appropriate services for Indigenous peoples.”

'Complex challenges'

Here’s what Robinson said at the time:

“While we continue to work with our partners to build more supportive homes for people experiencing homelessness in Vancouver, we know that while these homes are being built, there's a need to support people with complex challenges who are experiencing homelessness. This centre will provide 24/7 accommodation, individualized attention, case planning and wraparound supports to support people."

Clients would be able to stay until longer-term housing is secured.

This type of “enhanced shelter model” — as government described it — had not been implemented in Canada. But, according to government, they are operating successfully in cities elsewhere in the world, including San Francisco.

Here’s what Mayor Kennedy Stewart said at the time:

“This first-in-the-country approach will help us provide more of our neighbours dealing with mental health and addiction better supports to find and keep housing. This low-barrier, intensive support approach shows what happens when the City of Vancouver and Province of B.C. work together in partnership to deliver for the people who need it most.”

So what happened to it?

BC Housing issued a request for proposals to find a non-profit operator for the centre on the same day of Robinson’s announcement.

The City of Vancouver was also supposed to be looking for a site, likely an existing building that would have to be renovated.

The budget to operate the centre was estimated at $1.5 million over three years. No budget was given for renovations. It was also not decided whether the centre would be in the Downtown Eastside.

I contacted BC Housing and the city this week to get an update.

Here’s what BC Housing said:

“BC Housing is in active discussions with the City of Vancouver on an appropriate location for the project. Further details, including location, expected completion date, non-profit operator and project funding, will be made public once they are available.”

Here’s what the city’s communications department said:

“We are continuing to work with BC Housing on the creation of the navigation centre and are finalizing the site location. We will share more information once we have confirmed the site.”

In other words, we’re working on it.

'Frustrating wait list'

Coun. Jean Swanson, whose primary reason for seeking a seat at city hall in 2018 was to advocate for homeless people and those at risk of homelessness, wants to see the centre open.

At the same time, she doesn’t think it addresses the long-term solution.

“I guess it’s an OK idea, but my question is: Navigate to what?” she wrote in an email.

“If there’s no housing, do you navigate to yet another frustrating wait list? The other shelters try to link folks up to services and housing, too. Maybe this would do it in a deluxe way. But we still need the housing. I’m not opposed to it, but just don’t think it’s an end-all-be-all answer to homelessness.” 

Meanwhile, city staff’s latest assessment of the homeless population is that it is remains the same or may have increased since the city last conducted a homeless count in March 2020 — this despite 737 people being moved inside between the time of the count and November 2021.

Some progress is being made though on addressing some of the root causes of homelessness.

The mayor told me last month that a program for people with severe mental health and substance use challenges has operated in Vancouver for the past year and it has led to fewer hospital visits, police calls and drug dependence among participants.

Also last month, the B.C. government announced that two Vancouver residences will offer a form of intense homecare to 56 tenants whose needs related to mental illness and addiction are not being met by the province’s current housing and health-care systems.

On Wednesday, council will discuss approving 10 “tiny shelters” for homeless people in a parking lot adjacent to an existing shelter on Terminal Avenue.

Total estimated cost of that two-year experiment, including construction, operation and evaluation for 10 tiny shelters that could potentially accommodate up to 20 people, is $1.5 million.

Which, as I mentioned a few sentences ago, is coincidentally the same price to operate 60 beds at the navigation centre over three years.

We’ll see which project opens first.

The couple I saw huddled in a tent last Wednesday next to the Grandview Viaduct — during a snowfall — probably doesn’t care either way.

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