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The behind-the-scenes struggle over how to tackle homelessness

October 20th, 2011 · 35 Comments

A city report and several media stories this week, including mine, offered the public a confusing glimpse of what’s going on with efforts to house the homeless.

The city report left many with the impression that the real homeless are somehow being bypassed as non-profit housing operators choose who is going to live in the new supportive-housing buildings going up all over Vancouver.

Then all the politics started flying. NPA Suzanne Anton accused the Vision Vancouver council of having mismanaged everything, with the result that the homeless weren’t being housed. Non-profit groups felt like they were being accused of being slackers. The city’s former housing director weighed in, saying the buildings were being used exactly as intended.

What’s hard for the general public to get is the fierce battle that’s going on over the fundamental strategy needed to house the homeless.

City manager Penny Ballem called me yesterday to talk about this at length and laid out the philosophy of this administration compared to the last one.

What Ballem said repeatedly is: “You can’t boil the ocean.” In other words, there isn’t enough heat around to raise the temperature overall on a huge problem. So you can’t just throw out some new housing and start putting in just everyone who you think might be someday at risk of homelessness and think that you can solve the problem that way. Not when supportive housing units are at such a premium.

Instead, she says, when those precious units come available, they have to be targeted to the absolutely most needy — not people who are being shifted from a mental-health facility that the provincial government has decided to close down, not people whose are deemed through some fairly broad and vague definition to be “at risk,” but actual homeless people.

As she put it: “I am not going to see 14 buildings with supported housing open up again in my lifetime. So we need to make sure these go to the people who really need them.”

As she and others have said to me, wealthy (and not so wealthy) people in this town are giving money to Streetohome — money that’s being ploughed into eight of the 14 new supportive housing buildings the province is constructing — on the basis that they are helping to house the most needy. It’s a disservice to them if that money is being used to house anyone but those who have had the most difficulty getting housing.

Ballem also told me, as had Councillor Kerry Jang, that this has particularly come to a head with the Dunbar and 16th building, because the city is getting a lot of pressure from church groups in the area who have been feeding and providing help to people living in west-side parks, 48 of them altogether. Ballem and Jang said the church leaders are asking why those people aren’t going into the new building in Dunbar, which is what everyone in the community believes it was intended for.

Again, both of them said that this represents a distinct change from the agreement that the Sam Sullivan council made with the province back in 2007 on how the buildings would be used. Back then, there was much less focus on the actual street homeless and more of a status-quo agreement on how new supportive housing should be used: that it could go to anyone whom various non-profit groups decided might be at risk.

The different attitude in the Vision administration also comes from the underlying tension among housing groups in the Downtown Eastside. There are many who say part of the reason that there is a homelessness problem in this city is because groups that have run social housing in the past have always wanted to cream off the “easy” people. They house the poor, but those who don’t have behaviour, addiction, anger-management, or severe psychiatric problems. Those people ended up getting booted out and on the street, leaving other housing groups to pick up the pieces.

Often, the different kinds of housing groups get similar funding and staffing, which leaves those who have committed to housing the most difficult cases struggling to keep things together on a shoestring while managing much more complex cases. Groups like Atira, Portland Hotel Society, Raincity and Lookout typically get loaded with the most challenging.

But for the non-profits and for those who worked most of their lives in the pre-Vision system, the change has been disconcerting. People like Darrell Burnham at Coast Mental Health and Lorne Epp at More Than A Roof (the Mennonite organization that runs one of the four buildings identified in the city report and whose residents are the ones the city has asked the most questions about) have run buildings for years on the premise that they were doing fine by taking in certain kinds of clients who were likely to have a harder time finding housing than the average person.

Now they’re being told that they can’t take those “easy” clients. They and others are being told by the city that the system has changed and they have to be willing to take in the ones who are actually on the streets.

Burnham feels like the game has been changed without anyone telling him. Back in 2007, when the city and province were working out agreements, his group got the contract to manage the Dunbar building and he was promised 30 beds for the kinds of residents Coast normally houses. Now he’s being told that the city wants that building to go to 48 local homeless people.

Burnham doesn’t think it will work, that you can’t put that many people who have been chronically homeless for years all in one building. He also thinks that it betrays what he told community groups would be happening when he did public consultations several years ago. Then, he said, it was hard to get them to accept that residents with psychiatric problems would be moving in. They finally agreed and he thinks it’s unfair to change the game at this point.

Burnham also said he thinks it’s unrealistic of the city to demand that every one of the 1500 new units coming on be used for the most difficult. “The city needs to develop other strategies” and spread those people out to different kinds of housing.

Jang said that pitch was made to the community back then to appease the NIMBYs who were afraid that they’d have to accept people being shipped in from the Downtown Eastside otherwise. But, he said, people in Dunbar now get that the building should be used to house the local homeless population.

This is a hugely significant battle, with two quite different worldviews on how to solve homelessness. It’s going to be critical to see how the city, BC Housing and housing groups resolve this.

It’s unfortunate the city report was laid out the way it was, as it now has sent a discouraging message to many people, i.e. “You poured your tax or charity dollars into trying to solve homelessness and it’s not doing any good.”

As the city report noted, though far down where no reporters picked it up, 88 per cent of the people housed so far are people coming from the shelters and street. They may have passed through residential hotels, addiction treatment centres or hospitals briefly, but they are going to the people everyone says this housing is designed for.

I also think city people still have work to do in explaining how housing at-risk people doesn’t solve the immediate housing problem. The reality is there’s a homelessness factory out there. There is no way that, once the current crop of 1,600 people in shelters and on the street get housed, there won’t be a homelessness problem. People are constantly falling onto the ground in the game of housing musical chairs in this province. So someone who is at risk today but not actually homeless may very well be homeless tomorrow. What’s the plan for them?

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