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Vancouver housing initiative for homeless meets opposition

A temporary modular housing suite is visited by the public while on display in Robson Square in downtown Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday Oct. 3, 2017.

BEN NELMS/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Vancouver's first wave of consultations over housing the homeless in temporary modular housing has resulted in protests and a meeting so disruptive it had to be shut down early. But city council remains adamant that it's taking the right approach.

"It is already quite an enhanced [consultation] process," Councillor Kerry Jang said. "Normally, if it's a development permit, people just send comments in."

Instead, city staff ran three open houses in the past week and visited local businesses to explain that 78 units of modular housing for Marpole will mostly house local homeless people who will be carefully selected, he said. Marpole is a largely residential community of mostly single-family homes in south Vancouver.

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Dr. Jang, a psychiatry professor at the University of British Columbia, said residents are being reassured that everyone to be housed in what will eventually be 600 units of modular housing located throughout the city goes through an assessment first by staff from Vancouver Coastal Health.

"If they are fairly independent, they will go into modular housing," he said. If they have serious issues, they will be sent to another facility.

"We try to find the right mix of people for a building."

Dr. Jang said the choice will be made by a committee that will include representatives from the city, BC Housing, and the non-profit managing the modular housing. In the Marpole case, that is Community Builders. He has sat on those committees himself and said it's a careful process.

"We are looking for low-risk folks."

He said he was disappointed that protesters were repeating terrible stereotypes about the homeless and that they were so disruptive at one meeting that staff decided to end it early, because a productive dialogue seemed impossible.

The Marpole site is just the first of what might be as many as a dozen around the city, the result of the new NDP provincial government promising the money for temporary modular housing to get homeless people off the street.

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There will be sites in other Lower Mainland communities as well.

City councillors approved a new policy a month ago that paved the way for the housing to be fast-tracked onto empty lots. It is looking at city-owned sites and privately owned ones where development is unlikely to happen for several years.

The Marpole site is owned by the Onni Group, which is redeveloping a huge swath of land between Cambie and Oak streets that was formerly owned by Vancouver Coastal Health.

But city assurances that the housing will be temporary and only for local homeless people who have been carefully chosen are not allaying all residents' concerns.

More than 200 protesters demonstrated at City Hall on Thursday morning, saying they hadn't been properly consulted and they feared the impact of moving homeless people into their neighbourhood.

Jim Lee, who attended the rally with his one-year-old son, said that he is not opposed to settling the homeless in the city, but building such a site near schools and students makes him concerned.

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"I don't want to bring that to anywhere near my child," he said.

Anna Chan accused the city of not taking children's safety into consideration.

"In the whole process of the planning, kids were never even mentioned right from the beginning. And it's so important. There are so many of them."

Sally McLellan's two children, ages 8 and 10, go to Sir Wilfrid Laurier Elementary School, which is two blocks from the site.

Ms. McLellan said although the city held several information sessions, it not enough to inform a community with more than 2,300 residents.

"All those information sessions had a combined capacity of 215 people. We have almost 3,000 signatures on the petition and 2,300 people in Marpole, and you call that informing your community? That is garbage," she said.

The protests against the housing have generated a counterprotest. Many people have written to city councillors and on Twitter that they are appalled at the protesters' behaviour and that they support the temporary housing.

The project will go next to the development-permit board for approval.

Frances Bula is a freelance reporter.

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Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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