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Mayor Gregor Robertson walks through the 250 sq. foot model suite from the City of Vancouver's first temporary modular housing project in Vancouver, on Oct. 24, 2016.Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

A controversial project housing 78 homeless people in the city's southern Marpole neighbourhood will go ahead despite protests from residents angry that the modular homes will be placed near three schools, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson says.

On Monday morning, more than two dozen local parents chanted "Right idea! Wrong location!" at a rally near the site, where 78 units would open by January – the first of 600 planned for Vancouver – on an empty property owned by the development company Onni Group. Over the past two days, an online petition had garnered more than 1,480 signatures opposing the project, stating that the mental-health and addictions issues of residents could endanger local students.

Hours after the protest, the mayor called a news conference in which he said the protesters are spreading misinformation about the dangers of putting homeless people near schools and rejected their demand to move the project.

"I'm very, very concerned about the vicious comments, the stigma that has been put on people who are homeless or are having a tough time with housing.

"We need to get beyond that and look to taking care of our neighbours," he said, noting that colder temperatures have forced the city to open emergency shelters.

Rev. Andrew Halladay of St. Augustine's Anglican Church said at the news conference that his congregation helps feed homeless people in the area each week, and about 10 of them met with city staff last week to arrange accommodation at the Marpole project.

Last month, Ann Mukai, one of the Marpole residents protesting against the project, said the mayor and council did not consult the neighbourhood before choosing the site.

Mr. Robertson said it is hard to find suitable land, and Onni had offered the property. He said the neighbourhood was alerted in time. The city is holding three evening information sessions with the community this week.

On Monday, the mayor said tenants will be carefully selected, and the city and staff from a non-profit agency will work with residents in the new housing to identify and reduce problems.

He said a similar project at Main Street and Terminal Avenue received no official complaints from neighbours since opening last winter.

He also emphasized that there are no simple solutions to homelessness and that proximity to a school should not disqualify such projects.

"There's schools all over Vancouver," he said. "It's going to be difficult to find any site that doesn't have a school within walking distance from it, because that's how the city is planned and laid out."

Jeremy Hunka, an advocate with the Union Gospel Mission, said about five Vancouver residents become homeless every week and his organization, which provides support for the hardest to house, knows these temporary units help counter this surge.

"We know that transitional housing like this with support works," he said. "We've seen this lead to people getting off the street and transforming their lives."

In coming months, the city will need at least eight to 14 other sites for the other 520 units of modular housing the province has promised.

Likely locations are vacant development lots that are going through the rezoning process, similar to the Marpole site. That would make sites such as the Jericho Lands in West Point Grey and the former RCMP land in central Vancouver, between Oak and Cambie streets, prime candidates. They are co-owned by the federal government and First Nations. Other cities are also scrambling to come up with sites for modular housing after Premier John Horgan announced B.C. would provide money for 2,000 units.

The new NDP government is also putting fresh money into winter shelters, promising Vancouver $2.8-million for 300 winter shelter beds that began operating this month.

Last winter, the province provided $1.6-million for shelters to open at the beginning of December.

The regional homeless count conducted every three years showed 3,600 people in March. About 2,100 were in Vancouver, with more than 500 living outside. Just over 600 were in Surrey and 200 in Langley.

Entrepreneurs, developers and more affluent residents have been moving into Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside at an accelerating rate. Activist Fraser Stuart says the changes are displacing longer-term residents.

The Canadian Press