Skip to main content

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is fielding complaints about a proposed housing site for homeless people in the city's Marpole neighbourhood.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The first tussle in what is expected to be a wave of controversy over housing the homeless erupted Thursday as south Vancouver residents turned out to argue with Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson about a proposed site in their neighbourhood.

At the mayor's formal announcement about plans to open 80 modular units by January – the first of 600 planned for Vancouver – on an empty site owned by the development company Onni, Ann Mukai accused the mayor of not consulting with Marpole residents before choosing their neighbourhood.

Mike Burdick said the risk was that some homeless people can be violent.

And Mohsen Turki said that while "we're supportive, we don't want them on the street," he was worried about what homeless people will bring into the neighbourhood and Laurier elementary school on the next block.

"The main concern is when homeless come here, they bring drugs, alcohol," he said.

The mayor tried to allay people's concerns by saying tenants will be carefully selected and that the city and staff from the non-profit agency in the new housing will work with residents to identify and reduce problems.

He also emphasized that there isn't a simple solution but that there's "no other way" to solve the city's serious problem with homelessness.

"There's no easy place in Vancouver to add temporary buildings," Mr. Robertson said as he talked to a crowd that surrounded him with questions.

"We'll work through it. We have to move urgently on this and we'll work with residents to make sure there aren't problems," Mr. Robertson said.

The mayor will be repeating that message many times in coming months.

The city will need at least eight to 14 other sites to place the other 520 units of modular housing the province has promised as part of the effort to combat homelessness.

While no one would say where those sites are, likely locations are development lots that are currently vacant and where construction is unlikely to start for years because of the rezoning process needed.

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, prime candidates. They are both co-owned by the federal government and the city's First Nations bands, at a time when Indigenous people are a huge part of the homeless population.

Other cities are scrambling to come up with sites for modular housing as well after NDP Premier John Horgan announced the province would provide money for 2,000 units throughout the province.

BC Housing operations vice-president Craig Crawford said there are already requests for more than 2,000 units from various cities in the Lower Mainland and elsewhere, but none of them is ready yet to make a public announcement.

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

Last winter, the province provided $1.6-million and only provided money for shelters to open as of Dec. 1. This year, they will open Nov. 1.

That announcement comes a month earlier than it has in past years, when the city and former Liberal housing minister Rich Coleman routinely tussled every fall.

There were 3,600 people counted as homeless in the once-every-three-years regional homeless count in March. About 2,100 were in Vancouver, with more than 500 of them living outside. Just over 600 were found in Surrey and 200 in Langley.

Oprah Winfrey, Steven Tyler and Carly Rae Jepsen were among the celebrities who attended the David Foster Foundation's annual Miracle Gala and Concert Saturday night in Vancouver.

The Canadian Press