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Just a few blocks from where the city devolves into the social chaos of the Downtown Eastside, Premier Gordon Campbell and Mayor Sam Sullivan announced a major new initiative yesterday aimed at the homelessness problem plaguing Vancouver.

The province is providing $80-million to purchase 15 buildings, mostly single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels in the Downtown Eastside, which will provide nearly 1,000 units for the homeless. The project also includes developing new social housing on three properties owned by the city.

Officials said it is the largest single commitment to social housing in the history of British Columbia.

Ten of the SRO buildings are in Vancouver (including the historic Marble Arch Hotel on Richards Street and the Savoy Hotel on East Hastings) with four in Burnaby and one in Victoria.

Mr. Sullivan, whose council has been pursuing a plan to purchase at least one SRO hotel each year for 10 years -- a program he was falling behind on and which has triggered protests in the streets -- seemed overwhelmed.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," the mayor said to Mr. Campbell and two senior cabinet members who were attending, Rich Coleman, Minister Responsible for Housing, and Claude Richmond, Minister of Employment and Income Assistance.

"Today is the day we begin to turn the tide on homelessness," said Mr. Sullivan, who plans to ask council to direct $5-million to the project.

"Think about it. In one day we've done 10 years worth of effort," he said.

Cheap SRO hotel rooms are often the last stop before people end up living on the street. The buildings have been under increasing pressure in the Downtown Eastside where developers have been converting them into condominiums or more expensive hotels.

There are an estimated 2,174 homeless people living in the Greater Vancouver region, double the number that was counted in 2002. The figure has been projected to triple by 2010, the year Vancouver plays host to the Olympics, giving protest groups a rallying point that has led to clashes with police, the theft of the Olympic flag from city hall grounds and the defacement of a countdown clock that is marking the time until the Games start.

In announcing the housing strategy at the Salvation Army's Belkin House, Mr. Campbell said his government was not spurred to action by the recent protests.

"It was really no factor at all, to be quite honest about it. We have been investing significantly more in housing . . . [and]this is really the results of months and months of work."

He said that, if anything, the protests have hindered the effort by causing a distraction from the hard policy work that had to be done.

"I don't think, frankly, the protesters have helped their cause. I think they take away from it. I think the community generally wants to support [homeless]people, they want to find answers, and the way to find answers is to work together and that's what we're doing here."

Mr. Campbell said more housing projects will follow, but this action was needed to secure the SRO hotels before they were sold or converted to less affordable housing.

He said the SRO buildings, and the new facilities to be built on city property, will be linked to social support programs so that occupants can begin rebuilding their lives.

"It really, I think, takes us a leap forward in terms of providing support . . . so when people come and live there they will have a chance to connect with the health-care providers and the social supports they need and hopefully we'll be able to make a transition to healthier housing in the long term for everyone."

Critics said the government's plan isn't enough.

NDP MLA Jenny Kwan said homelessness doubled in Greater Vancouver between 2002 and 2005, and about 700 units of low-income housing have been lost in the Downtown Eastside since the Olympics were awarded to Vancouver.

Jean Swanson, co-ordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project, described the initiative as "a baby step in the right direction."

She said purchasing existing SROs that are already full doesn't do anything to reduce the problem.

"What we really need is new affordable housing," she said.

Ms. Swanson said a committee that has been advising VANOC on housing issues recently recommended the building of 3,200 affordable housing units, the purchase of 800 SROs and a 50-per-cent increase in the welfare payment rate.

"So they have acquired the SROs, but now there is a lot more that has to be done," she said.

SRO units have been in decline in Vancouver. In 1970, there were 13,300 SROs, but by 2005 there were only 5,000.

Anna Hunter, of the Anti-Poverty Committee, said the government is finally acknowledging there is a housing crisis in B.C., but "as usual, their response is too little, too late."

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