Rich Coleman (l) on the campaign trail last Spring
Last week CityCaucus.com posted its first annual top five list of Metro Vancouver's most influential public figures, and we concluded that the person at the top of this list was the Honourable Rich Coleman, MLA for Fort Langley-Aldergrove and Minister of Housing and Social Development for the BC government.
It might seem like an odd choice for a provincial government minister to lead a list of urban political figures, but if you look at Coleman's track record in the past several years, you begin to realize what a considerable footprint he leaves on local public policy.
The so-called "homeless file" is one that Vancouver's Mayor would like to lay claim upon. But no amount of acronyms and media releases from his office can hide the truth – that there would be no progress without Rich Coleman's involvement.
Last week myself and Daniel sat down with Coleman for a wide-ranging interview on his Ministry's work. We begin with the first of two parts of our discussion with the purchase of SRO buildings...
CityCaucus.com: What is the status of the SRO hotels purchased by the Province to increase supportive housing in Vancouver?
Rich Coleman: Most of them are done, and most of them are occupied. I think the Marble Arch is doing a floor by floor, there might be a couple of units left there. The Backpacker's (Inn) is complete, some of the tougher ones are done. They've been doing them ever since we bought them, and we bought twenty-three buildings.
Was that twenty-three just in Vancouver, or across the province?
That's just in Vancouver. We bought 46 hotels across the province.
Any plans to expand upon this program?
Not necessarily at this time. We just did another groundbreaking this morning (at Main & 1st Avenue), and we had two or three new buildings opening at the same time we were making the purchases, and Woodwards is coming online, so we're just going to watch our numbers from here. We've had four sites that we've already started construction on - four city sites of a total of fourteen that the city has provided.
Today's groundbreaking is a new development we're doing with the Lookout Shelter Society. It's a 126-unit supportive housing project basically targeting the homeless population, which we will bring in from the shelters. You need to do this always – these people have mental health and addiction issues, often times literacy issues, so you can't just say, 'okay go live there.' You've got to have security on the building's outside to prevent drugs from coming in, and give them the supports like a meal and some clinical supports in some cases. So you have to have that relationship to be successful...so you have to have a non-profit involved, along with a health authority and housing, and combining the money so you have supports in the buildings as well as the buildings themselves are okay as well.
What is the nature of the partnership between the City of Vancouver and the Province?
The City can take credit for the sites. They've been very good on the development cost charges which they're forgiving, and they put up the land. We do the rest. Our investment in the City of Vancouver is about 170 million bucks in capital for construction, and about $240 million province-wide.
It's been suggested that the Assistance to Shelter Act is some kind of street sweeping effort to hide Vancouver's homeless during the Olympics. Can you explain what this legislation is all about?
In simplistic terms it's a tool. It's a tool in a very specific, finite period of time. It's not during an Olympic time, but during a weather event. If a severe weather event takes place, the local committees – in Vancouver there's a committee chaired by an individual who works with BC Housing and with the service providers to activate what we call the severe weather strategies. The severe weather strategy then allows us, because we have a relationship with organizations, to open additional beds.
So we fund those additional beds provincially. They make the decisions locally, we fund the additional space so they can bring in cots, whatever, the stuff is already triaged and ready to go. Each community has its own strategy – Vancouver has its own strategy, most other bigger cities have their own strategy, and it's in the smaller communities where the Ministry makes the decision. Most places like Vancouver, Nanaimo, Kelowna, Victoria, they have a committee that makes the decision on the severe weather event.
When we looked at the death of the lady in Vancouver last year, it's interesting what the reaction has been to this act. The very people who were at me at that time – not just the media, but activists were out there asking what are you going to do about this...we can't have people in severe weather... Even law enforcement were saying this, so we went to work trying to find a tool.
The tool was basically, we're not going to take away someone's rights, but we should have the ability during a severe weather event to take someone off the streets to the door of the shelter, connect them with an outreach worker and see if we can get them to come out of the cold to save their life.
And that's all it is – it's a tool. And if you look at all the other tools, the Mental Health Act and all those things, it's just meant to be a complementary tool.
So what you have in Vancouver is a group of people that would best be described as poverty activists. They have never said a good thing about anything I've done in housing. So it's not surprising that they're out there with placards calling it something to do with the Olympics, because they don't actually deliver any housing in Vancouver. They don't actually run a single program that anyone can use. They just spend their life criticizing. And that's their life. And you always know that's going to be the case.
What was your reaction to Chief Constable Jim Chu appearing to reject the act?
I looked at his policy and it's not bad. It actually identifies the tool, and it says we may use it, we'll use it very sparingly like helping somebody across the street, but that's the whole intent of the Act is to give the police the power to be able to actually urge somebody to go somewhere. So it wasn't about handcuffs and jail because you've already got that for misbehaviour and certain aspects of the laws around drunkenness and so one. I wasn't fussed one way or another [about Chu's response].
On the HEAT shelters – "HEAT" is not your term, it belongs to the Mayor in Vancouver – maybe you could tell us what you saw when the controversy erupted on the north shore of False Creek last summer. Now that we've heard that those shelters are going to re-open, how is it going to be different this time?
Well, they're shelters as you say. They're low barrier shelters, and we kept some of them open at the church for example, because we thought we could use the additional capacity. When we shut them down I said we would look at them again in severe weather – if it was a tough winter we'd look at the possibility of opening up additional space. We made a $1.2 million commitment, and last year I think two things happened. First, the City moved quickly because of the severe weather, and we supported that piece because we felt it was important to get some additional people off the street.
The mistake we probably made is having the shelters stay open an additional three months longer than the period of time we had initially anticipated. Because then they became more of a residence. And the discourse was taking place when the weather was starting to warm up, and because people were outside their behaviours were outside. The issues with what the neighbourhood was saying were outside, versus within the shelter where people were just being sheltered to live during the severe weather.
When the City asked us for support this year, we asked them for a plan for what the community engagement would be between now and the time they would open. They've shown us that plan, they're going to go out to the community, they're going to have the discussion with them. So they're going to have a bit more of a process around it. That's to try to mitigate the concerns of the community around security, and [shelter] activity and the timing, because they're only going to open for a short period of time, if they're used. And that means we'll have to have the need for them.
So the plan doesn't just include those [north False Creek shelters]. There's some shelter space on the south side of False Creek that we're looking at, and another place up in Mount Pleasant with regards to this package to get us through this winter.
So there is a pre-determined time when these additional low barrier shelters will be closed?
They're being funded for two months. We're opening some in January, and they wouldn't be open any further than past March 31st.
Some will argue that the consultation process was too swift and didn't include them. What do you say to that?
My experience going back 20 years around this file is even a social housing project brings out those people who don't want 'those people living in my neighbourhood'. We have a responsibility to some people living on our streets, we need to be able to bring them in, to attach some stuff to actually save their lives if it's cold weather, to actually stabilize them in order to move them to other forms of housing.
And they're not all just on the Downtown Eastside.
It's never popular when you say you're going to open a homeless shelter. It's never popular when you say you're going to deal with mental health and addictions, but the mandate of the Ministry is to get integrated supports and deal with the issue of getting the homeless off the streets of British Columbia.
And it's had some remarkable success. Seven thousand from across BC have been housed, by our outreach workers, that were homeless. Out of that 7000, 85% of them are still housed today. And we did an intervention project where we went after the chronic and the severe mentally ill and addicted person on our streets. The plan was to get 100 people off our streets per month for eighteen months by putting some teams together. We started it in five communities – Vancouver, Victoria, Surrey, Prince George & Kelowna – and we got over 1800 people in six months.
You have to identify the needs individually, whether it's mental illness, addictions or maybe they can't even read a newspaper to find a job. You can't expect to put them all in one place and expect they'll all be fine. What you do with outreach workers is try to build that system of supports.
I think there has been some remarkable success on this file over the last couple of years.
In part two of the interview, Minister Coleman will speak about how cities like Burnaby can also pull their weight on caring for people on our streets. Coleman also talks about the controversial Little Mountain housing development, and what the world will see when they arrive here for the 2010 Games.