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George Shearer a homeless 45-year-old makes a living buy selling found items in Vancouver April 23, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
George Shearer a homeless 45-year-old makes a living buy selling found items in Vancouver April 23, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Homeless plight an impossible fight for Vancouver politics Add to ...

This week, Metro Vancouver released the results of its 2014 homeless count and the numbers aren’t good for the city of Vancouver.

The previous count three years ago found 154 souls huddled in doorways, under bridges and anywhere else a brave volunteer with a clipboard might venture. The latest count, conducted last month, shows 538 people now sleeping on the streets of Vancouver.

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This, according to Mayor Gregor Robertson – who promised an end to street homelessness by 2015 – is a “frustrating setback.” Mr. Robertson is, however, still confident that he can keep his promise to end street homelessness by the end of this year.

NPA Councillor George Affleck, who has not yet announced whether he intends to run against Mayor Robertson in this November’s election, says the mayor should never have made the promise to begin with.

“Absolutely impossible,” Mr. Affleck told CBC’s The Early Edition. “I think the mayor has made this kind of promise before to win an election. I think it’s time for him to admit that he has failed at this and to try to figure out why this problem keeps going on.”

Mr. Affleck is no doubt aware that the last NPA mayor of Vancouver, Sam Sullivan, also promised not only to reduce the number of people sleeping on the street, but to end homelessness altogether. In November, 2006, as part of Project Civil City, Mr. Sullivan pledged to “eliminate homelessness, with at least a 50-per-cent reduction by 2010.”

Mr. Affleck rightly points out that under Mr. Sullivan, in November, 2007, the city announced an agreement with the province to build social housing on 12 city-owned sites. Mr. Sullivan, of course, lost the election exactly one year later, but Mr. Affleck gives no credit to Mr. Robertson or Vision Vancouver for their work to bring those projects to fruition.

“Vision Vancouver has spent the last six years creating enemies at the federal and provincial level,” he said. “I don’t know how many times we’ve had motions come forward from the mayor about sending nasty letters to the federal government on numerous issues saying, you know, do this, do that. The things that aren’t in our purview, within our work that we’re supposed to do in the city. We’re supposed to be basically dealing with land use and roads, that’s what we do.”

When I spoke with Mr. Robertson this week, he mentioned senior levels of government, but this time he was careful not to lay blame. “All the partners are going to have to go at it full tilt,” he told me, if he was to keep his promise of housing anyone who wants shelter by the end of the year.

Mr. Robertson says the increase in the number of street-homeless people comes from an unfortunate convergence of events: the loss of shelter spaces, delays in the opening of new housing projects, and an increase in the number of people being evicted from SROs as rooms are renovated then priced beyond the reach of welfare recipients.

Mr. Affleck meantime concedes that the city of Vancouver will always be a magnet for homeless people, which is why he says it was silly for the mayor to make the promise he did.

But when it comes to what do about the problem I had a hard time following where Mr. Affleck was going.

“This is a much deeper, deeper issue than just building housing. Housing in a way is the Band-Aid to a problem that exists in our society,” he said.

I’ve never thought of housing as a Band-Aid. I think what he means is that poverty, unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction, abuse, neglect, and historic wrongs are all contributors to homelessness and putting a person in a shelter overnight so they can’t be counted as “street-homeless” is hardly a win.

The solution to homelessness is every bit as complex and multifaceted and is not entirely clear at this point. What is clear is that the issue is political on all sides, especially as we get closer to November’s civic election.

Homeless people will once again be collected and set aside like game pieces, and pulled out into the light only when a symbol is needed. They’ll be pointed at, petted, offered sympathetic smiles – some may even get a chance to tell their stories.

They must be exhausted.

 

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