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BC Premier Gordon Campbell, John McLern with Street to Home and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson during an announcement regarding new supportive housing units for the homeless in Vancouver May 25, 2010.John Lehmann/ The Globe and Mail

You can't solve homelessness without getting business people to support your cause.

That's been the mantra in the United States for a quarter century. But Canada - where people are accustomed to government taking care of social issues - has been slower to embrace the private option.

The landscape shifted this week when a group of Vancouver business leaders, headed up by mining financier Frank Giustra, committed $20-million to provincial social-housing projects worth $225-million.

"The engagement of the private sector in affordable housing is not new. But in this case, the amount of money is significant and is not typical," said Dallas Alderson, program manager at the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association in Ottawa.

Until now, Canadians, including Canadian businesses, have usually donated to the cause of affordable housing in relatively small ways: Habitat for Humanity projects, small contributions to housing groups, meals for the homeless.

Even in Calgary, seen as the Canadian pioneer in the way its business community got heavily involved in developing homelessness solutions 10 years ago, businesses there have mostly provided leadership and time to the Calgary Homeless Foundation, not cash.

The contribution from Vancouver's business-led Streetohome Foundation marks a radically different, more American-style approach.

The deal is striking because the contribution didn't come with the American-style benefit of a tax break. The U.S. introduced a low-income housing tax credit in 1986 that gives businesses a reward for investing in or donating to affordable housing. Vancouver tried for that but couldn't get the federal government to agree.

Despite that missing element, though, this public-private partnership relies on each side being pulled into the deal by the promise of money from the other partner.

As in the U.S., some people welcome that fact while others worry it's just a way for government to get off the hook.

Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan was ecstatic this week when he heard that Streetohome had stepped forward with its substantial contribution.

"That's great news, it's all exactly what we were hoping would happen," said Mr. Sullivan, who pushed for ways to get the private sector involved in contributing to social housing when he was in office. "This is what we wanted, that the private sector would get involved and it would leverage government money."

Former deputy premier Ken Dobell, who helped found Streetohome, has always maintained that having business leaders demonstrate they care about homelessness is invaluable politically - more valuable than their mere dollars.

"After a while, folks just tune out the Downtown Eastside groups," he noted at one point. "It's hard to tune out Frank Giustra."

But homeless advocates say that one act of charity is not going to solve homelessness or affordable-housing problems. The real solution is permanent, sustained government funding, they say.

"The private sector comes to the table in many ways and their contribution does reflect well on local communities," said CHRA director Phil Brown from Toronto. "But we need a national housing program that is a fundamental base."

If other cities copy the Streetohome model, there will be more of this kind of debate in Canada, just as there has been in the United States.

David Wood of the Boston-based Institute for Responsible Investment, which helps broker public-private housing deals for communities, said even after decades of government relying on the private sector to help build affordable housing, there's still unease.

"I have real concern that private money brought in to catalyze markets may take the burden off government to do what it is best suited to do," Mr. Wood said.

On the other hand, he said, people from both the left and the right have come to accept that the imperfect system just might be working because it does what it aimed to do: create affordable housing in significant volume.

"Many have now worked together on this system," he said, "and it's largely considered, for all its flaws, to have been a success."

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