Little Mountain is "the key," says Minister. The Rich Coleman interview, part two

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Rich Coleman with media during a recent housing announcement in Victoria

LAST MONTH sat down for an interview with Minister of Housing and Social Development, the Hon. Rich Coleman, MLA for Fort Langley-Aldergrove. In December we listed Minister Coleman as Metro Vancouver's most influential public figure of 2009.

The first part of the interview we published before Christmas Day, and in that interview Coleman spoke about the purchase of SRO hotels by the Province to bolster social and supportive housing in the region, the controversial assistance to shelter act, and the problems surrounding Vancouver's HEAT shelters and how the Province hopes to avoid a repeat episode of HEAT difficulties.

Now, we continue with the second half of our conversation with Coleman... In 2004 there was a lot of community backlash to the opening of a dual diagnosis mental health facility on Fraser Street in Vancouver. Despite the concern the facility has blended in well with the community, and according to police we spoke with there has been no concern about the building or its occupants. Yet, anytime someone proposes putting a health facility like this into a community, people rise up.

Rich Coleman: I know the facility you're speaking about because I was at the opening. You know, you find that with most of these places, if they're managed properly with a good group of people, neighbours after about six months usually say they wonder what all the fuss was about. The fact is, people don't like people who are different in their neighbourhoods.

Even if it was housing for single moms and their kids, they'll say, 'oh there's going to be too much traffic' and they all come with the same arguments to the public hearing.

It takes leadership at the municipal level to stare these things down. The [Vancouver] council in 2004 stared this one down, and by supporting the facility they proved to be right. If you look at this city actually, it's had a very good record of approving these kind of projects by comparison to other cities around BC.

Didn't Richmond push back on having a [dual diagnosis] treatment facility in their city?

Richmond appears to have found their way now, and they're asking for an M.O.U. with the Province to do a project. Sometimes it takes the loss of something for them to realize, "oops, the money went somewhere else."

There was a backlash by some about the site at Dunbar Street & 16th Avenue holding one of the dual diagnosis housing facilities. The site appears to be ready for development now, so what's happening with that project?

I think it's being held up by the process, but if it's one of two more facilities we're just about to announce then the development is imminent. These things take time, however.

What tools do you have in the Ministry to help convince cities like Burnaby, for example, to come forward and make a bigger commitment to social housing?

That's a real fair question. Back in 2005/2006, the Premier at UBCM after setting up the Premier's Task Force on Homelessness, Mental Health and Addiction spoke to mayors in the province, and he said "we're looking for partners." So communities that want to partner with us to solve these problems need to come to the dance with some land or some DCCs or some forgiveness of parking or those sort of things. And so we built up some pretty good partnerships with Nanaimo, Victoria, Prince George, Penticton, Kelowna, Vernon – all those communities have come on board doing things with us as a partnership.

But there are some that haven't. And Burnaby is one of them. Burnaby's Mayor takes the attitude that "this is really not my problem, so every other government should be there as a partner but not me."

Until he changes that, it's pretty tough to put a project together when you have someone like New Westminster or Surrey saying "here's a site, we'll support it through the public hearing process, we'll give you the land for free or on a long term lease, and we can go make this thing happen."

What's happened, because of the leadership of the Premier in particular by developing these partnerships, is that communities have stepped up, and those who've stepped up are getting projects. What we're beginning to see is that communities that didn't step up are starting to say we better catch up to the curve on this thing. I think you had to have some that came out of the box as leaders, and they've shown the leadership to everybody else.

You take even my own community of Langley. The city put up a piece of property for the Gateway of Hope, which is a project with the Salvation Army that is both supportive housing and shelter. The Township put in a million dollars, and we put in the rest in the partnership to get it built.

Shifting gears now to the topic of Little Mountain, we have 2 questions. First, what is it about this project that makes it work from the Province's standpoint. And second, are there plans to try a similar model with other social housing properties in the city?

To your second question the answer is "not yet." We felt that we needed to focus on a site, this is our most valuable site. It drives a LOT of money back into the system.

The legacy of Little Mountain will be this – 224 units of old social housing will be replaced with brand new social housing for people, for affordable housing. And the legacy coming from the rest of it will be sites in Vancouver and across the Province, but in particular the eight sites in Vancouver getting built. Because the capital that Little Mountain will bring will actually create another thousand units of social housing.

And this is the right type of housing, which is the supportive housing for people with mental health and addiction issues so that we can continue to deal with the homeless issue. It's really smart leveraging of an asset to actually do more in the areas that you need it the most.

The biggest key to Little Mountain will be the density the City would be prepared or not prepared to put on the site. That will actually drive how much can be coming out of it. There will be a number of Little Mountain legacy sites.

Regarding the 224 units, back when they used to build them they were family-sized units with two or three bedrooms. Are we looking at a one-for-one replacement of these kinds of units?

Some people don't understand that when Little Mountain was designed it wasn't an effective use of square footage. We can actually do a smaller suite with less square footage that's more efficient today than we could back then. The idea then is to replace it one-for-one.

You have a facility on Willingdon in Burnaby that is reported to be "too successful" that some won't leave the facility. Can you comment?

It's not that it's successful, it's more about where we put these folks. Some of them have significant mental health issues that don't conform to the social and supportive housing we've been talking about. So we've been doing some renovations at Riverview and other facilities that we've bought in order to give these folks the long term care that they need.

You mentioned Riverview, and a couple years back you provoked controversy by talking about redeveloping that site. Where are we at with that facility today?

I think what needs to happen at Riverview is that the community has to get an engagement process going out in Coquitlam. There's a First Nations component to discuss because the land is in their traditional territory. At the same time, I think once people see what Little Mountain can do, people will understand what reinvestment and value can do to change these issues in the community.

How does 2010 and the arrival of the world affect your work?

We're going to face 2010 head on. I think some of the work we've done in this Province is remarkable. Every housing minister across the country can't figure out how we're pulling it off, and how we're being so successful on the homeless file and the mental health and the addictions stuff. And that's only because we got smart about it.

For 2010, down at the Woodwards site there's going to be vignettes for the international media to come see. We'll look them straight in the eye and tell them the things we're doing and how we're going to win this thing. We're not going to hide the file, and we're going to be very open about what we're doing in Vancouver and elsewhere across the Province. I'm happy to have the discussion with anybody who wants to come.

Mayor Robertson says he wants to end homelessness by 2015. What's your date, or do you have a date?

It's really difficult to pick a date when you have a population that is so significantly affected by mental illness and addiction. Is it doable? Yeah, I think it actually is.

The stuff we've got in the system today, I think regarding our objectives and what we want to accomplish we've had some pretty phenomenal success. I'm pretty optimistic. This 1800 people we've already done on the intervention project, the numbers surprise even me and I thought we could be pretty aggressive on that.

You're always going to have some folks that will fall through the cracks in any society. You just have to be there to help pick them up, because there is no panacea of solutions on this file.

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End homelessness? When will the idealists realize it's an unsustainable goal for they will forever keep coming. Then again, go ahead and bankrupt the city or province to try - it does SOUND good afterall.

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