Project Civil City Commissioner Geoff Plant and Sam Sullivan
Tuesday's announcement by the Province and the City on the creation of 200 new shelter beds had an underreported component: the so-called private sector involvement of the fledgling Streetohome Foundation (StH). In a hastily organized press conference featuring Premier Gordon Campbell, Mayor Robertson and a representative of StH, a partnership agreement was announced between the Province, the City and StH to each provide $500,000 to a total of $1.5 million to create up to 200 shelter beds at three Vancouver locations.
It has been characterized as a first step in building the Mayor's relationship with the Province, but we shouldn't mistake this deal as Robertson's achievement alone. Nor should we understate the months of work by those who laid the foundation for this deal -- in particular, Geoff Plant, Ken Dobell, Sam Sullivan, and Judy Rogers.
Therein lies the irony of Tuesday's shelter announcement. Streetohome was in fact the brainchild of Judy Rogers, who by being fired last Friday was not able to participate in the launch of its first charitable initiative.
StH was brought to life through a set of recommendations provided in the Dobell/Fairbairn Report. Ken Dobell is a former City Manager whom Rogers replaced before he went on to become Premier Gordon Campbell's Deputy Minister, and then on to become the ultimate government influencer sitting on several important boards including VANOC. Dobell was subject to attacks by City Council's opposition because of his perceived "double-dipping" by being a consultant to both the Province and the City of Vancouver.
In a rather unflattering story on Dobell/Fairbairn in June 2007, Dobell is quoted as saying that Judy wanted his help to solve homelessness, and to "come over and have a glass a wine" to discuss it (a glass of wine is always my way of dealing with big problems, too). The resulting report by Dobell and Don Fairbairn titled More Than Just a Warm Bed, was greeted with open skepticism by Vision councillors and their political allies. Pivot Legal lawyer David Eby called the private/public homelessness foundation "unworkable and un-Canadian." Others wondered aloud, why the big rush to push this through?
Now that Mayor Robertson is "rushing" his own initiatives, those same critics are silent. And Eby now sits on Robertson's H.E.A.T. committee alongside one of the directors of the so-called "unworkable" foundation.
The Streetohome Foundation became a key component of Project Civil City, the initiative created by the NPA City Council and headed by former provincial Attorney General Geoff Plant. StH's specific mandate was not for shelters. Rather, the focus of the Streetohome Foundation is on "ending chronic homelessness, which means providing supportive housing and services to the homeless who have been shelterless for more than a year and have become entrenched in a life on the streets." Streetohome was not set up to duplicate the efforts of other local agencies, and it would "fill the gaps" missed by traditional support services.
StH was a first step in getting the larger community involved in finding creative solutions for Vancouver's homelessness problem by building partnerships between government, business leaders and non-profit agencies such as the Vancouver Foundation. Dobell's "guys who write big cheques" would get involved in Streetohome, and eventually so would people who could donate only a few bucks. But where the lobbying efforts of Dobell & Fairbairn fell short however, was that changes to the Federal Income Tax Act required to make Streetohome's funding models work were not forthcoming in the 2008 Budget. Philanthropy in aid of ending homelessness would be a little slower in coming.
At a September meeting of Council $500,000 was provided by the City as startup funding for StH, with another $5 million approved to renovate a number of SRO rooms.
During the fall election campaign, fearing a new Vision council might strike down StH, Gregor Robertson and NPA mayoral candidate Peter Ladner were invited to separate briefings about the Streetohome Foundation. Robertson quickly began to weave references to StH into his campaign rhetoric.
After he was elected one of Gregor's first meetings was with Housing Minister Rich Coleman. Another transformation occurred at that meeting when Robertson kiboshed the idea of reopening the Little Mountain development as temporary housing for the homeless. Little Mountain would be a deal-breaker for Victoria. As Coleman repeats to any who will listen, the profits from that project were critical to the City's Provincial partnership arrangement for 12 new social housing sites.
It's possible that all these efforts could still go sideways. You can be sure that Vision will continue to cherry-pick the best parts of Project Civil City, then kill the brand their supporters described as "hating the homeless." There are people in the Vision/COPE alliance itching to pick a fight with Gordon Campbell between now and the May election. You can bet Gregor and his staff are doing everything possible to prevent the latter.
For now, Robertson should be commended for embracing Project Civil City's Streetohome Foundation despite its NPA pedigree. It might be the first Sullivan ribbon he cuts, but it won't be the last.