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The Globe and Mail

B.C. extends funding for shelter - for two months

Residents of the New Fountain Shelter hang out at the shelter in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 25, 2011.

rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

After a protest campaign that featured a soccer marathon and sign-waving protesters at city hall, the provincial government on Monday announced that it would extend funding for the 40-bed Stanley/New Fountain shelter for another two months.

But even as those who'd campaigned to keep the facility open welcomed the last-minute reprieve, other groups slammed the pending closing of five city shelters - including the Stanley/New Fountain when its funding runs out in two months.

Several advocacy groups, including Pivot Legal Society, have scheduled a news conference for Tuesday to call on the provincial and city governments to provide more money to keep short-term winter facilities running into the summer.

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And provincial New Democratic Party candidate David Eby said the short-term funding commitment for the Stanley/New Fountain highlights gaps in the Liberal party's approach to homelessness, drug addiction and mental health issues. Mr. Eby is running against Liberal Premier Christy Clark in the Vancouver-Point Grey by-election in May and took part in a soccer marathon to lobby for the shelter to stay open.

"To fund a shelter like this month to month makes it impossible [for operators]to give the people who live there any stability at all," Mr. Eby said on Monday.

Located in the Downtown Eastside, the Stanley/New Fountain shelter was one of several opened in December of 2008 under Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson's Homeless Emergency Action Team.

Conceived of as stop-gap measures while more permanent housing was built, the HEAT shelters have run near or at capacity since they opened.

In April, 2010, the province agreed to provide about $8-million to keep three HEAT shelters running until new housing projects were operating.

Under that deal, the Stanley/New Fountain - the smallest of three HEAT facilities - was to close first, when a new, 80-unit social housing project opened this year.

That new, $21.6-million apartment got its first tenants in January, but people still kept coming to the Stanley/New Fountain shelter, said Portland Hotel Society spokesman Mark Townsend. PHS operates the Stanley/New Fountain shelter and also runs the new apartment building.

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Faced with the loss of funds, PHS and supporters launched a campaign to keep the shelter running that included a soccer marathon and, last week, protesters at city hall.

The two-month commitment will provide some breathing space to assess what mix of housing and support might be best-suited for those people who now rely on shelters, Mr. Townsend said.

"I think they saw the logic that there is nowhere else for people to go," he said.

Officials from the city and province, meanwhile, emphasized that shelters are more expensive to run than supportive housing projects and that permanent housing remains the priority.

"By extending funding for this temporary shelter, we can ease the transition to more permanent housing for people in need," provincial Housing Minister Rich Coleman said Monday in a statement.

Three new projects, with 309 units, are scheduled to open in the next two months.

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"We did the shelters as an interim measure and now we're focused on getting the permanent housing built," Councillor Kerry Jang said, adding that the current network of shelters can be credited for a dramatic reduction in street homelessness. The city's 2010 homeless count found a 70-per-cent increase in the number of people in shelters from a previous regional survey in 2008 and 400 fewer homeless people on the street, down by 50 per cent.

Results from this year's survey, which took place in March, are still being tallied.

The city's cold-weather shelters are scheduled to close this month, even though some groups insist they should remain open.

Mr. Jang said those facilities were always intended as temporary, cold-weather facilities and were not likely to get any additional funding that would allow them to remain open.

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