Homelessness fight escalates between mayor and housing minister

Volunteers counting thousands of homeless this week from Vancouver to Langley

12th and Cambie

You may have heard we have a homeless problem in this city.

That's not meant to sound facetious.

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After all, who am I kidding — you've all seen the poorest of the poor for years sacked out on the streets and sidewalks of the Downtown Eastside to Dunbar.

Take a guess how many are out there.

Put it this way, there's enough people without a home in Vancouver that two Commodore ballrooms would be needed to handle the capacity.

A year ago this month, volunteers scoured the streets, shelters and parks over 24 hours and counted 1,847 people without a permanent home — 1,308 in some form of shelter and 539 on the street.

That total, sadly, was an all-time high for Vancouver.

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More than 1,800 people were counted as homeless in Vancouver's homeless count in March 2016. Photo Dan Toulgoet

This week, volunteers will be out again counting homeless people while other teams of counters will do the same in the rest of the region as part of the Metro Vancouver homeless count.

The prediction, as I heard last week from Mayor Gregor Robertson and the mayors of Port Coquitlam, Maple Ridge and Port Moody, is that volunteers will likely be shocked by the numbers.

The mayors told us reporter types that recent data gathered from cities and studies determined there were more than 70 homeless camps from Vancouver to Langley and about 4,000 people without a home.

How can that be when we live in such a wealthy region?

It's a question Robertson has asked over and over again almost every time he talks about homelessness. And he usually follows that question by launching political rockets over to Victoria and across the country to Ottawa.

And I paraphrase: The governments have to step up, housing is their responsibility, we can't do this alone as municipalities. It's gotten to the point where I could write the mayor's speech.

Housing Minister Rich Coleman has heard Robertson say these words many times. He's also heard him promise to end "street homelessness" by 2015 and blame the provincial and federal governments for not doing their part to reach his goal. For the most part, Coleman shrugs it off and then goes on to rattle off how many millions of dollars the ruling Liberals have spent on housing in Vancouver.

Anyway, as you may have heard or read last week, Robertson and Coleman got into it again. Robertson was clearly the aggressor and came out swinging after I asked this question of him and his mayoral colleagues: Do any of you take responsibility for homelessness in your cities?

Robertson hogged the mic, saying Vancouver has “been forced to take responsibility” because the provincial government “dropped the ball” on addressing homelessness. For the city, that’s meant investment in housing, opening shelters and more work for city-funded police and firefighters.

He then went on to point out the ruling Liberals have a $2 billion surplus, will spend about $5 billion on a Massey Bridge and another $10 billion on the Site C dam.

“So there’s $17 billion that the provincial government has decided has to be focused on something other than people living on our streets,” he said. “If you connect the dots here -- between unprecedented homelessness across the region, a fentanyl overdose crisis that has killed over 900 people across B.C. and the shelter rate and income assistance rate being frozen since 2007 -- it’s been war on the poor in B.C., while we invest billions and billions of dollars in projects of questionable merit.”

Coleman told reporters he was “flabbergasted” and feeling “sad” by Robertson’s comments. He went on to rattle off the hundreds of millions of dollars the B.C. government has spent on housing and funding shelters in Vancouver.

The next day, Coleman had his media people circulate a long op-ed of sorts. Here’s an excerpt: “The province cannot do it alone. We need assistance from the Metro Vancouver mayors, who can expedite development approvals for supportive and rental housing. They can use their land-use tools and zoning to create higher densities and pre-zone land to expedite affordable rental housing. And they can continue to partner with the province by identifying and providing municipal land for supportive housing. We need their assistance, not just their recriminations.”

If my calendar is correct, we're only in the second week of March and the provincial election isn't until May 9. It’s a good bet there’s more to come between these two. Meanwhile, the homeless population grows.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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