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Mayor's optimism can't convince homelessness researchers

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson seems confident he'll meet his self-assigned “gargantuan task” of ending homelessness in Vancouver by 2015.

To hear him and city councillor Kerry Jang speak yesterday, it was as if all that stood in the way of a city where everyone has a warm place to sleep was a lack of provincial funding.

“There is a belief emerging that we can actually end homelessness in Vancouver” over the next few years, said the mayor.

But the academic who invited the politicians to participate in a panel discussing health issues affecting the homeless was less optimistic.

“That's a general direction” said Dr. Michael Krausz as he thanked the mayor for his speech, “but now we need to work out the details.”

Yesterday's discussion at St. Paul's Hospital in downtown Vancouver was organized as a follow-up to an academic conference held last month.

Krausz, the LEEF Chair in Addiction Research at the University of British Columbia, said the health researchers who focus on homelessness wanted to connect with the policy-makers working on the same issue.

Robertson and Jang focused primarily on the successes of the Homelessness Emergency Action Team (HEAT), one of the first programs Robertson initiated as mayor. Over the winter, the HEAT program turned five under-utilized buildings in downtown Vancouver into emergency shelters, housing 450 people a night.

Provincial funding for those shelters is currently scheduled to run out on June 30.

“I'd encourage everybody to start calling those new MLAs, and re-elected MLAs, and putting the pressure on them” for continued funding, said Jang. He later said a decision from the province was expected by the end of May.

The researchers and health administrators who participated in the panel praised the mayor for his commitment to the issue, and acknowledged that the HEAT shelters had been innovative in trying to provide more welcoming, supportive environments.

But despite a lot of talk about increased co-operation, the discussion seemed to be missing the connection between what Krausz called the “housing first perspective” and the health perspective.

Krausz hopes for more capacity in health care as well as housing. Speaking after the panel session, he suggested there needs to be more focus on what he called “health care from the other side of the problem” -- mental health and addictions treatment for young people at risk of becoming tomorrow's homeless.

“If you're not stopping the drift into homelessness,” you cannot hope to eliminate the problem, he explained.

Although he was supportive of the HEAT initiatives, he emphasized that it had to be put in context.

“You have to relate it to the size of the problem,” he said. “Five hundred (people) is a very small number.”

Amelia Bellamy-Royds reports for The Tyee.

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