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Mayor Robertson’s statement on the shelters controversy

June 25th, 2009 · 5 Comments

The residents around the two homeless shelters under the Granville Bridge started complaining a month ago about the activities in the shelters and their uncertain future. At first, they didn’t get a lot of attention, but the story exploded in the last couple of weeks and has turned into one of city hall’s major unchecked forest fires.

Now the mayor is going on the offensive, pointing the finger at the province and saying they need to come up with the money for interim housing.

Here’s the statement he made at 1:30.

Thank you all for being here today.

When I campaigned to be Mayor of Vancouver, I made it very clear that homelessness would be my top priority. It still is.

We have over 1500 people sleeping on our streets every night, and the world spotlight will be on our city in eight months.

If people think it is an embarrassment now, just wait until February 2010, when the world’s media will be staying in hotels just blocks from the downtown eastside.

We have a plan for dealing with homelessness. In March, we put forward a proposal to the Province that would see a combination of shelters and interim housing to help us get through next winter and until new permanent housing starts to come on stream over the next 3-5 years.

The province has put huge investments into housing, whether it is through purchasing and renovating SRO hotels, or funding the first six of the social housing sites around Vancouver.

But the majority of new construction will not be completed for 3-5 years. Therefore, if nothing immediate is done, we are still going to have over one thousand people on our streets for the foreseeable future.

One of the things we did immediately upon taking office in December was partner with the Province and the private sector to open shelters around Vancouver to help people get off the streets.

Contrary to what many people say, the shelters were not opened just because it was cold out. They were opened because there is an unconscionable number of people sleeping on our streets. And there still are.

I don’t believe that just because it’s warmer out during the day that people should still sleep in doorways and benches at night.

We now have five HEAT shelters around the city that house about 450 people a night. They provide meals, connect people to housing, job training, psychiatric services – all things these people would not have access to if they were still on the street.

In the first three months alone, over 12% of shelter users were moved into housing.

We had people coming inside to the HEAT shelters who have refused all other options. Overall, the HEAT shelters have been a success.

– VPD stats show drop in public disorder and mental health calls around the city.

– The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association has seen reports of aggressive panhandling plummet. The shelters are making an impact where other policies have not worked.

We’ve also seen some serious problems trying to shelter the hardest to house. The situation at the Granville shelter is not tolerable. This shelter is focussed on our street youth; it provides less than 10% of the beds across the HEAT shelters but is causing a disproportionate amount of the problems.

I’ve seen this myself when I spent a few hours down there last Saturday night. I’ve heard from the residents, both from the condos and in the shelters. It’s a situation that no one should have to live with.

The overwhelming majority of comments I have heard from residents in that neighbourhood is that they want to see help given to the people in the shelters who need it.

They know that as a city we need to coexist, but they are fed up with the drugs and disorder that have emerged around the shelter.

Simply put, the state of tension and fear that exists in that neighbourhood cannot continue. It is pitting the needs of the homeless against those of the residents – and it needn’t be the case. The two are not mutually exclusive. And they can’t be, as we try to make progress as a city that has close to 1500 people on the street needing housing.

I am going to outline today a number of steps that the city has recently implemented in conjunction with the VPD and the shelter operators to deal with the challenges at the Granville shelter.

First of all, we’re raising the barriers. Low barriers were necessary during the cold winter, but given the current circumstances, that needs to be changed.

The VPD has provided a list to the shelter of people who they have identified as causing serious problems. They’re the bad apples.

These are people who deal drugs, who prey on the most vulnerable, they have histories of assault and theft…..they are now banned from the shelter.

They’ve been getting a free ride from the shelter services and it ends now.

Shelter residents who are seen using drugs, dealing or purchasing drugs in the vicinity of the shelter in the neighbourhood will not be allowed in.

People staying at the shelter will not be allowed to wander in and out at night. They can step outside for a cigarette, but that’s it. They’ll be monitored by staff.

These rules will be consistent with those of other shelters in the city.

What we have is an 80/20 problem at this shelter. The vast majority of the residents are getting a roof over their heads, a warm meal, and access to services that they desperately need, and are not causing problems.

These are the people who I have heard from neighbourhood residents in nearby condos that they don’t have a problem with.

The problem is with the 20% who are doing serious damage – creating chaos, making people feel unsafe, and ruining it for everyone else – the shelter residents and the neighbourhood.

I’ve heard a lot of the discussion going on in recent weeks, on the call-in radio shows, in the newspapers, on tv. Too often, it seems that a complex problem that has plagued our city for years has been boiled down to an “us vs. them” debate.

It’s just not true. I’ve talked to both sides and I can tell you it’s not true. As a city, we need to move beyond this culture of black and white characterizations of our most challenging community issues. We are in this together.

Just as we need to remember that the people living in the homes nearby the shelters have a right to live in an neighbourhood that is safe and clean, so to do we need to remember that the people in these shelters have fallen through the cracks of our society, and that we can’t simply ignore them.

I have spoken with the Premier and Minister Coleman several times in recent days, they know our concerns, and I know they’ve got some big challenges.

Minister Coleman has been the driving force behind so much of the good work that the province has done on homelessness, including the SRO hotel purchases and funding for the six social housing sites. And I am optimistic that the funding will come through, because he knows the benefits of keeping the shelters open.

People keep asking, what’s Plan B if the shelters don’t stay open. The shelters are Plan B. Plan A has always been housing – that’s the only solution to homelessness. If there is no funding from the province to keep the shelters open, they close as of July 1st, and people are back on the street. It’s as simple as that.

I want to focus on Plan A, which is creating more housing. In March, I presented the provincial government with a proposal for interim housing. This is the transition that allows us to get people out of shelters and into housing. Through a combination of modular housing, privately leased hotels, and government-purchased buildings, we could provide 550 units of housing before next winter.

There are presentations that show you some of the offers we’ve had for modular housing right over there.

The city is prepared to put up capital costs equivalent to about $2.6 million a year to provide buildings and land, and we’ll be working with our private sector partners to have them match our contribution. We’ve asked the Province for $5 million a year to cover operating costs.

That’s the solution we’re putting forward. Move people out of the shelters and into housing quickly. It is within our grasp. As the permanent housing that the province has invested in becomes completed over the next three to five years, people can move from the interim housing and into permanent housing.

From the streets to shelters, from shelters to interim housing, and from interim to permanent housing. That’s the plan we have, and we have put it to the Province. I’ve spoken to the Premier about it, I’ve spoken to Minister Coleman….and I’m hopeful they’ll support it.

We’re in tough economic times, and I know it’s not an easy decision. But I believe that the benefits of investing in this interim solution, which would allow us to get people off the street, out of shelters, and into housing, are well worth it….particularly with the Olympics just around the corner.

I’m sure that the residents of North false creek, the shelter residents, and the people of Vancouver who see homelessness on our streets every day would agree that getting people into interim housing is worth the money.

In the meantime, I await the decision from the provincial government on the funding of the shelters, and I hope that we’re able to continue them.

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