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John Granger and Linda Gordon live out of their in tent along with others who are homeless at Oppenheimer Park. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
John Granger and Linda Gordon live out of their in tent along with others who are homeless at Oppenheimer Park. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Homelessness pressure mounts in Vancouver Add to ...

Mayor Gregor Robertson faced a group of emotional protesters in council on Tuesday who demanded to know when he is going to make good on what they believe is his promise to provide homes for everyone.

“This all falls on you because you promised us you would end homelessness,” Brody Williams told the mayor as he and others appeared at council with signs demanding that the city allow people camping out in the Downtown Eastside’s Oppenheimer Park to stay there.

Mr. Robertson and his Vision Vancouver council are facing increasing pressure as they approach the 2015 deadline they set for ending street homelessness – and a Nov. 15 election.

The number of people living on Vancouver’s streets dipped to as few as 154 in 2011 from about 850 in previous years, but it reached 538 in March’s homeless count.

About 1,600 people were in permanent and temporary shelters as well.

In the past year, the city’s housing agencies have struggled to find spaces for people in shelters or on the street, even though the province has been steadily opening new social-housing towers. That’s because the province is renovating many of the Downtown Eastside hotels it bought before the 2010 Olympic Games, creating a temporary shortage.

“We know it’s possible by next March [to provide several hundred more spaces,]” said city manager Penny Ballem, who outlined a scenario for council that showed where all the possible beds will be if everything is built and financed in time. “We’re trying our best to get the stuff on stream very quickly.”

Between now and next February, 445 units in new provincial buildings and one city-funded residence are due to open. Ms. Ballem said the city is also talking to the provincial government about paying to continue operating the 100 rooms at the Bosman Hotel downtown for one more year and providing 160 winter shelter beds.

The problem for Mr. Robertson and Vision is that a lot of people who heard them promise to end street homelessness expect them to do it with or without additional provincial money.

Mr. Robertson and Vision councillors are in the awkward position of trying simultaneously to blame the province for homelessness without antagonizing the Liberal government too much.

As well, Mr. Robertson is constantly pressed about why he said the city could end street homelessness if it does not have the power or money to do it.

“I’m the mayor of this city, and I set a goal in the hopes that we could rally all the parties,” he said. “We can’t give up on homelessness and hope that someone else will solve it. We have to lead.”

The mayor’s most immediate problem is the camp at Oppenheimer Park. Vancouver has had several famous showdowns over homeless or protest camps over the years. That history, which includes the 2002 squat at Woodward’s, a camp near Science World in 2004, and the Occupy protest camp at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2011, means that police, the park board and the city go onto high alert at the first sign of tents going up.

Park-board staff posted notices last week in Oppenheimer Park warning people they were in violation of city bylaws. That prompted the group there to say they were on unceded First Nations land and would not be leaving.

The group and its supporters say the park is a better place to live for many people than hotels and shelters that are ridden with bedbugs and crime. They say they are keeping it free of drugs and alcohol.

They have asked the city to keep the public toilet in the park open and to stop harassing them. And they say they are not leaving until the city provides them with permanent housing that is clean and livable.

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