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The main men's dorm room at First United Church a low-barrier shelter in Vancouver's downtown Eastside December 6, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
The main men's dorm room at First United Church a low-barrier shelter in Vancouver's downtown Eastside December 6, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Vancouver's rising homeless population in need of shelters, co-ordinator warns Add to ...

It was a bad winter for Vancouver’s street people and the future may be far worse, according to the city’s veteran housing co-ordinator, Judy Graves.

“Unless we get more shelter for them, we are going to see street homelessness like we’ve never seen before,” said Ms. Graves, who has been dealing with social problems in Vancouver, the homeless in particular, since 1974.

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Ms. Graves’s warning followed Tuesday’s news that the number of people forced to sleep out on the city’s mean, chilly streets last winter doubled from the previous year’s total. The conclusion was part of Vancouver’s annual homeless count, which found those unable to find winter shelter space went from 154 in 2011 to 306 on the day of the count was taken.

Ms. Graves blamed the increase, in part, on “some prejudice” against the homeless by officials charged with allocating space in a series of new social housing developments being built. So far, only 38 per cent of the units have gone to the homeless, instead of the 60 per cent advocates expected, she said.

“[Organizations]are not familiar with people on the street. They don’t know them,” she said. “There’s a generic view that those are scary people out there. But in fact, you can house them very well.”

The homeless were also faced this past winter with 74 fewer temporary shelter beds funded by the province, including a reduction of 60 spaces at the take-all-comers First United Church that were cut for safety reasons.

Ms. Graves said her fears for the future are based on possible closure of several current pilot projects for the hard-to-house, which could, according to compilers of the homeless count, lead to nearly 900 people sleeping in the street by 2014. “It’s very scary,” she said.

Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang criticized the B.C. government for reducing the number of winter-only shelter beds.

“This isn’t political. The data is very clear. These are straight numbers,” Mr. Jang said. “When you cut spaces, you get more people on the street.”

The good news, both Ms. Graves and Mr. Jang agreed, was a relative stabilization in the city’s overall homeless count, from 1,715 in 2010 to 1,581 in 2011 and most recently, 1,602.

“With the population going up and the price of housing so expensive, you’d expect a sharp increase,” Ms. Graves said. “But the overall numbers are stable.”

In an e-mailed response, a spokeswoman for B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman defended the government’s record on curbing homelessness.

She pointed to a 62-per-cent decline in street homelessness since 2008, rather than comparing the two most recent years.

As to the fact only 38 per cent of new supportive housing units are going to those on the streets, she said they were always intended to have a mix of residents. The vast majority is given to individuals from the street, shelters and Single Room Occupancy hotels, she said.

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