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Vancouver to launch new shelter project downtown

Vancouver is going to take another run at housing homeless people with mental-health and drug problems near the Granville Bridge, but this time as part of a national mental-health trial and with a lot more dialogue with the neighbours.

The new project comes on the heels of controversy over two emergency shelters the city set up under the nearby Granville Bridge this winter, which ended up being closed this summer as a result of violent objections from some local residents that the shelters had brought crime and unacceptable behaviour to their neighbourhood.

The city is aiming to turn the 102-room low-budget Bosman's Hotel on downtown Howe Street near Helmcken Street - an area surrounded by hotels, office buildings and condos - into a three-year experiment designed to test whether housing plus aggressive health treatment can improve the lives of some of the city's most troubled homeless people.

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"It's actually testing what kind of treatment works," said Kerry Jang, a Vancouver city councillor who also sits on an advisory committee of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which is contributing money toward the housing test.

If the new use is approved by council this fall, Bosman's Hotel will be part of a five-city initiative the commission is running to see how effective a "housing first" approach - an approach that is modelled on New York's Pathways to Housing program - works for the homeless.

It is scheduled to open in May, 2010, after the Olympics. Other cities running similar trials will be Montreal, Winnipeg, Toronto and Moncton.

"Housing first" means people get accepted no matter what their behaviour or substance-abuse problems are, unlike many kinds of social housing that screen out potential problem residents.

In an internal memo to councillors, city manager Penny Ballem warns that councillors and staff should be prepared for calls, given the recent debate over the shelters.

The shelters, which were among five created by Mayor Gregor Robertson's homelessness task force, initially received positive reports from police and businesses about their impact on street crime, panhandling and homelessness, but then became the subject of complaints from dozens of residents. Many of them said they'd had no information or say in what was happening in their neighbourhood.

Dr. Jang said he and other councillors learned something from that.

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"I think what's changed with the homeless is how you communicate about them with the general public. It's not even about public consultation, but you have to be providing information on almost a daily basis," he said.

Dr. Jang said the city might even consider running a blog or Twitter account to keep local residents and business owners updated.

The city is expecting to provide $500,000 and possible property-tax relief for the owners of the Bosman's Hotel, Prima Properties, whose directors are Akbar and Ali Tehrani of West Vancouver. Dr. Jang said that, although the owners were partly interested in the economic benefits of the arrangement, the Tehranis, an Ismaili family, were also interesting in contributing to improving the community.

He said the clients for the hotel will be recruited from the city's three remaining emergency shelters or from the street.

"They'll be dual-diagnosed people. We want raw folks because that's our street population," he said. They'll get 24-hour-a-day supervision on-site, along with visits from a new mental-health-commission team focused on treating the most troubled of the city's homeless population.

The Aggressive Community Treatment teams, as they're called, will consist of about 12 people with different medical specialties. At the end of the three years, their progress will be compared with homeless people who receive other kinds of treatment.

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