Housing Minister Rich Coleman has agreed to pay $8-million to keep three of Vancouver's emergency shelters running until as late as 2013.
That surprise announcement, which was publicized with a news release, was greeted with relief by Mayor Gregor Robertson and First United Church minister Ric Matthews, whose church is home to one of the three shelters. Both men happened to be at the same prayer breakfast meeting at a downtown hotel as the minister Thursday morning.
"It's a fantastic investment to ensure people have an option," said Mr. Robertson, standing next to the beaming housing minister. "The minister and I have been working on this for some time and he has been driving for solutions."
The news came after several weeks of apparent public friction between the two sides as the city pressed to get provincial money to keep three of its seven emergency shelters open past April 30.
The city released the numbers of its homeless count two weeks ago to make the point that the seven shelters that the mayor had pushed to open – shelters that are in addition to the approximately 800 permanent shelter beds the province already funds – were reducing street homelessness. The minister fired back that he didn't think their count numbers, which showed 1,800 homeless people living in Vancouver including 400 sleeping on the street, were solid.
The minister also publicly demanded that the city come up with half of any operating money for the shelters. The city responded by refusing to even discuss the minister's demand. Instead, the mayor's office staff started encouraging business improvement associations to come out with a statement urging the government to continue funding the shelters. Police also made a statement this week saying the shelters had helped reduce crime.
Mr. Coleman said he found the money by rearranging some of the priorities in his ministry. His announcement spells out that he will pay the operating costs for three Downtown Eastside shelters until people from those shelters can be moved into specific housing projects that are underway.
The 28-bed shelter run by the Portland Hotel Society at the Stanley/New Fountain in Gastown will close down next year, for example, when the Portland's new social-housing building opens on Main Street.
But Mr. Coleman warned that his decision to put $8-million into shelters now means there is less money available for other housing projects the city might be considering.
"I've said to them, 'Don't go buy some other building and say we want the operating money for it.'"
But he also said he was convinced by the mayor that the city couldn't and shouldn't pay for the operating costs of shelters and that the city would match the province's efforts by providing buildings and capital costs for other projects down the road.
Mr. Coleman said he wasn't pressured into any of his actions by the threat of public criticism that the government had only put money into homelessness for the Olympics.
"It's not a matter of blinking. I believe in doing the right thing. I knew I wasn't going to put people out on the street."
The minister said he doesn't need others to tell that extra housing is helping reduce homelessness. He can see it for himself when he walks around the Downtown Eastside.
"I personally see the difference that everything I'm doing is making," he said.
Mr. Matthews, whose church has 200 people every night sleeping on its pews, said the minister's announcement was both exciting and a relief.
"I'm surprised that it's not another one of these six-month extensions. That's very exciting because clearly what we want is some stability in this process. It helps you plan properly."
The emergency shelters were initiated by the Vision Vancouver shortly after coming to power in November 2008, where the party had promised to end homelessness by 2015.
The three in the Downtown Eastside have operated continuously since that winter. Two others were opened the first winter and then closed after public complaints about them. Another four were opened this past winter and are still due to close April 30. The minister has promised that the 160 people living in those four shelters will be offered other housing options.
The province has started construction on three out of 15 promised social-housing projects and is renovating almost two dozen hotels in the Downtown Eastside that it bought over the last two years.