Vancouver's ruling party has rushed into spending millions on interim housing and shelter space that normally the province would pay for, in a last-ditch sprint to try to eliminate street homelessness by its promised deadline of Dec. 31.
Vision Vancouver, which is facing a tough fight in its bid to be elected a third time this November, has been facing public criticism for failing in its promise to end street homelessness by 2015.
"We needed to take action," Mayor Gregor Robertson said. "We have a clear goal."
The mayor acknowledged the city is stepping into new territory – fully financing shelters and housing operations by itself – but said his team felt it had to act quickly.
"We've accelerated our timeline in response to the crisis."
On Tuesday, the city announced it will spend an unknown amount of its own money to open a shelter in the former Fish House restaurant on Pacific Street near the Burrard Bridge.
On Wednesday, a news release went out saying the city was going to lease a 157-unit hotel on Howe Street for two years, at a cost of $1.5-million, as interim housing, in part for people moving out of Oppenheimer Park.
The city's news release didn't say how much other costs would be, but B.C. Housing's Marguerite Ford project, with 147 units, costs $2.2-million a year in staffing and tens of thousands a year in other building-operation costs.
"We've committed those funds in the hope B.C. Housing will come to the table," said the mayor.
That's quite different from the city's approach and financing arrangement for another interim-housing project, the former Biltmore Hotel in Mount Pleasant. There, after a lengthy negotiation with B.C. Housing, the city paid only a portion of the capital costs, while the province is paying the cost of the lease, the non-profit operator, and all the other day-to-day bills.
In fact, this is the first time the city has paid full operating costs for housing or shelters, even on a temporary basis.
The two housing announcements came less than a week after the mayor announced another unusual foray into social-services spending, by saying Vision Vancouver would put $400,000 into school food programs if elected.
The city's other major political party, the Non-Partisan Association, hasn't commented on the announcements, except to say that it would also start a food program but by encouraging private donations.
But former NPA mayor Philip Owen said that kind of spending, on both housing and food programs, is unprecedented and dangerous for the city.
"It isn't sustainable at all," Mr. Owen said. "They're just jumping out. I think they're nervous. They go on and on, taking on financial obligations that belong to other levels of government."
Mr. Robertson made eliminating homelessness a major goal of his campaign when he was first elected in 2008 and again in 2011. He created a special task force as one of his first acts as mayor and pushed the province and private donors into funding three additional new winter shelters in his first year.
His efforts appeared to be paying off at first, as the extra winter shelters kept at least 160 people off the streets every winter. The total number of homeless people dropped from 1,715 in 2010 to 1,581 in 2011. Even more important, the number of people sleeping outside dropped from 421 to 154.
But since then, even though the province has been opening new social-housing buildings at a steady clip, things have slipped back.
In 2014, the traditional March homeless count identified 1,803 total homeless people altogether, with 533 on the street. Mr. Robertson said that was partly because there were fewer winter-shelter beds. As well, there were delays on some social-housing projects and renovations at older ones that reduced the number of new spaces available.
No one from B.C. Housing was available to comment on whether the government has been approached by the city and whether B.C. would be willing to pay for any of the the city's new projects.