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The Globe and Mail

Vancouver's homeless to get a home of their own

Marilyn Billy looked around the brand new room at the new Station Street housing complex on Main Street in Vancouver, too overwhelmed to say much.

Ms. Billy, a 53-year-old former oil-field worker from the Interior, has been couch-surfing with friends and family and drifting into social-service agencies in the Downtown Eastside for the past several months.

In mid-January, she will get one of these rooms for her own, as part of a massive push by B.C.'s provincial government to eradicate the homelessness that mushroomed in Vancouver throughout the last decade.

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"What difference will it make? I'll have my independence, a place of my own," said Ms. Billy shyly last week, as Housing Minister Rich Coleman and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson milled about, along with a couple of dozen reporters and bureaucrats, through the building.

With its 80 units, the Station Street housing complex is the first of 14 new social-housing projects that will be opening in the next two years, part the most intense social-housing boom in the city.

Mr. Coleman had just presided over the ground-breaking of the seventh of the housing projects in the pipeline, that one targeted to people who are mentally ill and who have tended to live on the streets in the city's trendy Kitsilano district, better known for its snowboarding and yoga attire shops.

"We have seven more to go after this and we're going to get them all done," said Mr. Coleman, who has presided over an astonishing $300-million worth of investment in social housing in the past three years.

BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay said that, after the Station Street building opens in January, a new building will open about every three or four months for the next three years. In all, 1,575 people will get new homes.

The question for everyone, though, is whether this will make a visible dent in the city's homeless problem. The last count in March of this year showed there were about 1,700 people living on the street or in shelters.

The number of homeless people has been steadily rising in the region since 2002, when the first count was done. That count also came a year after the B.C. Liberals were elected, when one of their first acts was to cancel the housing program altogether. The Station Street building was one of those that was stopped mid-track.

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Homelessness more than doubled throughout the region in the next six years, as well as becoming visible and politically challenging in smaller cities in the rest of B.C.

The province's investment in social housing is part of a big gamble that the hundreds of new units will actually go to homeless people and will make a difference.

Liz Evans, the director of the non-profit that will be running the Station Street building, said everyone is trying to ensure that the units do go to those most in need.

Her group, the PHS Society, houses those who are designated as the hardest to deal with. They're often kicked out of social housing because they're just too difficult.

"The people we deal with never have access to new housing," said Ms. Evans, as she viewed the new units with Ms. Billy and the others. She says her agency will likely put in a mix of people - some of who have living in the residential hotels that PHS manages and others who will come directly from a shelter that the group also runs.

"In the last decade, nothing has been built that will actually take this population. I think we will see a significant shift and it will have an effect on visible homelessness.

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About the Author
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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