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Housing homeless becomes political football

Vancouver homeless.

brett beadle The Globe and Mail

B.C.'s Housing Minister, a former senior civil servant and non-profit groups say Vision Vancouver council members have falsely accused the groups of not finding places to live for the "real" homeless in new buildings.

They say the accusation that Vancouver's street homeless aren't getting access to newly opened social housing is nothing more than a political game connected to the November election. Vision Vancouver is campaigning energetically on its record of reducing homelessness, one of its three key issues.

"Sure this is political," said Housing Minister Rich Coleman, adding that 90 per cent of people in the new units came either directly or indirectly from the streets. "It's 'Give me a story so I can bash my opponent.' "

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And at least one group is worried the city's stand means that 30 mental-health patients who have been waiting to get into an as-yet-unopened building on Vancouver's west side will somehow be deemed unqualified to live there because they are not homeless yet, only at risk.

"We have a dozen women in residential care now who have been looking at something more independent," said Darrell Burnham, director of Coast Mental Health, which will be running the social-housing project at 16th and Dunbar. "We had an agreement about who was going to move here. We don't want to sabotage our relationship with the city, but they can't change 180 degrees like this."

He said he fears that the Dunbar building is being caught up in politics.

City staff issued a report Friday that said only about a third of the almost 400 new units in four buildings that were opened this year went to homeless people living on the street or in shelters, while the rest went to people living in residential hotels or coming out of addiction facilities, jails or hospitals.

The report noted that a fifth building, yet to open on Dunbar, was only going to provide 20 spaces to the city for homeless people who have been living in west-side parks, when there are actually 48 homeless people in that area who need local housing.

Both Mayor Gregor Robertson and Councillor Kerry Jang followed that up by saying they had concerns about who was getting the units and saying taxpayers deserved answers for why they weren't going to the roughly 1,600 homeless identified in counts.

But a host of others say that the units are going to homeless people. Some may have been temporarily housed in residential hotels, hospitals or treatment centres just prior to getting a new unit but they are still part of the core group that needs housing the most.

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And the few units being used to house those not coming directly from the streets, they say, will go to those who are at risk of becoming homeless. Everyone working on the issue had agreed in a 2007 memorandum of understanding on who would be allowed to move in.

"It is understandable that the current council, with its focus on ending street homelessness, might prefer that the 14 projects accommodate more actual homeless than they probably will," said Cameron Gray, the city's long-time former housing director, in an open letter to council. "However, that does not mean that BC Housing broke any promises [or]reneged on any commitments."

There has been tension among housing groups for years because some groups say that others take only the easiest, "good" residents. That contributes to the homelessness problems when those with behaviour, addiction, or other challenging problems end up on the street because no one wants to take them on.

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