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Homeless shelter residents march for rights and dignity through the downtown east side of Vancouver October 23, 2012.Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

The city will open a winter shelter for homeless women this year, as part of its efforts to protect vulnerable women better and reduce the numbers of people living on the street.

The final result of Vancouver's March homeless count were released on Tuesday. It found more women were sleeping outside than usual.

"We had 45 women, which is the highest we've seen in a long time, sleeping rough on the street," the city's general manager of community services, Brenda Prosken, said as she outlined homelessness efforts on Tuesday for Vancouver City Council. Usually women will manage to avoid sleeping outside even if they have no real home.

A recent inquiry into missing women in B.C. recommended that many agencies do more to protect women.

Advocates for women in the Downtown Eastside say the shelter is a necessity.

"We've been trying to get this for ages," said Kate Gibson, director of the WISH drop-in program for sex-trade workers. "We see a need. The only other [shelters and transitional housing for women] are always full."

The shelter will be one of four that will open this winter, the fifth year in a row for seasonal refuges since Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver were elected on a promise to end street homelessness by 2015.

City staff say the winter-shelter program, which provides beds, two meals and other services in temporary spaces with minimal regulations is helping make a serious dent in the problem.

Almost 500 people who stayed at winter shelters the past five years got permanent housing, Ms. Prosken said. That's about 60 per cent.

"Our winter shelter program has become a foundational piece in ending homelessness," she said – a piece of news Vision councillor Kerry Jang called "simply amazing."

But the reality is that the city has only been able to prevent the homeless population from growing.

The numbers of homeless people in Vancouver shot up from 670 in 2002 to almost 1,600 by 2008, years in which the B.C. Liberals killed social-housing programs and made welfare harder to access. The same trend happened throughout the region.

Five years later, Vancouver is stuck at 1,600. The difference is, under Vision, many more of those people now sleep inside for most or all of the year.

The 2013 homeless count found 1,327 people in shelters and 273 outside, compared with five years earlier, when only 765 were in shelters.

Part of the change is due to the winter-only facilities, which provide an extra 160 beds, but part is due to a big jump in year-round shelter space that Mr. Robertson persuaded the province to finance.

As well, the city has been buying hotels – most recently the Ramada on East Hastings – for transitional housing, which allows people to move from shelters to something slightly more permanent and frees space for others.

Vancouver is the only B.C. city spending that kind of money housing the homeless. Other cities, such as Surrey, are also making huge efforts and spending millions, but provide only land, not buildings.

Surrey is also not managing to reduce its homeless population of 400, but it is counted as a triumph to hold it at that level when the city is growing by 1,000 a month.

"We can stay on top of it," Surrey Councillor Judy Villeneuve said.

Vision's emphasis on homelessness has been criticized and is sure to attract more of the same as political parties gear up for an election next year.

Critics constantly remind people that Vision promised to end homelessness, but it is not likely to be 2015. Some say the city did not spend enough money. Others, such as the city's centre-right Non-Partisan Association, say it has gone too far.

"The purchase of real estate for housing is challenging," NPA Councillor George Affleck said. "It's accepting downloading. That's what we're doing here in Vancouver."

Special to The Globe and Mail