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Harcourt brothers donate to new residence for homeless with mental illnesses

Former B.C. premier and Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt (R) takes a tour of Robert Godin's (L) garden on the balcony of his suite located in Coast Mental Health Society's Dunbar Apartments in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, August 14, 2012. Mi

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt says he and his brother have donated $50,000 from their parents' estate to a new Dunbar apartment complex for the mentally ill homeless, partly to highlight the need for similar residences in other neighborhoods.

"We need to have Dunbar-type facilities throughout the city," Mr. Harcourt said Tuesday about the complex, located in Vancouver's west side.

"It shouldn't all be concentrated in the Downtown Eastside."

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Mr. Harcourt and his brother, Neil, took part in a ceremony to mark the donation. The brothers unveiled a plaque on an interior wall of the complex in honour of their parents.

The Harcourts' donation comes at a time when the city has an initiative to end street homelessness by 2015 and governments are grappling with how to provide effective and compassionate treatment for the mentally ill. Dunbar Place caused some concern among neighbours when it was proposed, but now officially opens next month.

"The neighbourhood was quite charged up," said Darrell Burnham, executive director of Coast Mental Health, a non-profit agency that operates the residence. "This community knew this was a social-housing site and was quite worried about that."

But he said the agency made an effort with its neighbours, taking them on tours to other Coast facilities to become more comfortable with the concept. A neighbourhood advisory committee has also been set up.

Mr. Harcourt, who has taken an active interest in issues around homelessness, said he had a message for critics of residences like Dunbar.

"[They're] coming to you soon if I have my way. It's going to be like this," Mr. Harcourt said

The complex has a wide, bright lobby, with a common room and dining area that has a breathtaking north view of Vancouver.

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The $15- to $18-million facility also has 51 rooms on three floors that will house a mix of residents, including people moving from crowded residential conditions to their own rooms, and long-term homeless people coming in off the streets or from hospitals. Most rooms are about 330 square feet.

Operating costs are being covered by Coast Mental Health, with funding from Vancouver Coastal Health, B.C. Housing and social assistance to residents. Capital costs for the project were paid for by the province, and the city covered land costs.

From the street, the complex is relatively unobtrusive. Other projects elsewhere in Vancouver could be small townhouses, group homes or apartments that fit into neighbourhoods, said Mr. Harcourt.

"The building can be attractive, can be sustainable, and also can be affordable for really poor people, desperately poor people," he said.

Resident David White, 61, said he was very much enjoying life in the complex. As he displayed his unit for a group of journalists, he said he had more privacy than when he lived in group homes for about in 30 years. "It's great here. I love it here," he said.

Mr. Burnham estimated it would take 40 to 50 facilities like Dunbar – or about 2,500 units – to end homelessness in the Lower Mainland.

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The Harcourts' donation will go to special equipment, ongoing events and other measures to improve the quality of life in the complex, Mr. Burnham said.

He said the donation was symbolic, coming from the family of a former B.C. premier. "It just validates the value of these services in the community so there's a leadership part of that gift that's invaluable."

Mr. Harcourt said the donation is appropriate as a tribute to his parents' values, and to support a cause he and his brother believe in.

"It was a significant sum for us, but my parents were successful people.

"It is $50,000, which was a chunk of change for us, but we're glad to do it."

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