Housing the homeless, and a word about compassion

A good news story on creating social housing that hits a sour note for Plant

Earlier this week I attended a groundbreaking for a new supportive housing development in downtown Vancouver. The new project, which is being built on Burrard Street across from St. Paul’s Hospital, will provide 141 new housing units, 30 of which will be committed to youth under the age of 25, as well as support services for individuals who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

The project will be operated by The Kettle Friendship Society, which will provide tenants with access to group and individual support, training on household management and meal preparation, and skills training in money management and community living. The building will also be the home of Directions Youth Services Centre, run by Family Services of Greater Vancouver, which will also provide support services to youth.

This is a much needed facility and will provide much needed housing and support.

It’s a tribute to a remarkable, continuing partnership of the provincial government (which has provided capital construction and operating dollars), the City of Vancouver (which has provided land), and the StreetoHome Foundation, which, step by step, is breaking the cycle of homelessness in Vancouver.

StreetoHome has committed over $26 million through this partnership to help build 950 new permanent, supportive homes on eight sites in Vancouver. Housing for people on the street, or at risk of becoming homeless. Dollars raised from business and community leaders to help us do more than manage homelessness, and instead, solve it.

This particular project is also supported by Canadian Western Bank and CIBC. Yup. Bankers, the ultimate 1 percenters, also helping make a difference in our community.

The groundbreaking ceremony, attended by Ministers Rich Coleman and Mary McNeil, as well as Mayor Gregor Robertson, was on Wednesday of this week.

I was honoured to have the opportunity to represent the StreetoHome Foundation at the ceremony. It’s taken lots of work by lots of dedicated and selfless people over the past several years to move from a place where homelessness seemed like an utterly intractable problem to a place where real progress is being made. The Burrard Street project is another important milestone on the journey.

Great news, but where's the coverage?

I was a bit disappointed the next morning not to see any media coverage of the groundbreaking ceremony. All told, the Burrard project represents a nearly $40 million investment in land, capital and operating dollars, and when it is up and running it will make a significant difference in the quality of life and prospects for some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens. It is, I think, a good news story, and we could all use a bit more good news.

I was actually on the verge of writing a blog post to complain that the event had gone unreported, when a story finally appeared on The Province’s website late yesterday afternoon. It’s a good story, by Andy Ivens. Thank you Andy!

But then I read to the end of the story and into the online comments sections, and boy oh boy oh boy, did my good mood disappear in a hurry. Here is some of what I found:

They should build this homeless shelter in Fort St John where there are JOBs but no homes.

Next, let's build a tunnel across the street into St. Paul's Hospital so we can cram their beds full of these fine upstanding citizens and make it less accessible for those of us that actually pay our taxes! Funny that these projects don't happen near VGH!

Re: joeforte
You took the words out of my mouth. This is exactly what mayor moonbeam promised. Makes me sick!!!!

Can I live on Burrard for free too? I get squat as a single working female. Maybe I should just not work and start popping out random kids and get a free place to live.

I want a free place to live; I want three square meals a day too!! I guess I gotta become a useless, degenerate, homeless to get these things.. maybe I'll get some of my tax dollars back.. homelessness is a choice. let them live with their choices.


People voted for Vision Vancouver and Mayor Gregor Robertson. Their Vision is bike lanes and luxury condos for the homeless paid by YOUR tax dollar. I didn't vote for Vision, but if you did, well, you get what you voted for.


The media has done the public a great disservice by coming up with the all inclusive and sexy for them term 'homeless'. With that one word they lump a dozen issues into one and only make any real solutions even more impossible. Druggies and punks aren't homeless they're just free loaders. Why should we give them anything except for a bust ticket out of town? Vancouver needs to stop being so accommodating – building this on prime real estate? At this cost? Just doesn't make sense.

This is it.

This is the most ignorant thing the prov has ever done.

An entire highrise given over to the drug infested criminally insane meth heads?..downtown in the most expensive real estate on Earth? This building will become the biggest crackhouse on the planet. It won't be supervised….trust me!

You think this will get the homeless off the streets??? Not a f*cking chance. Every single resident will still lie on the sidewalks begging for money smoking meth.
Except this time…they have a luxurious free condo to go back to…to smoke more crack. All on top of free food.

Thanks Canada


Why is this being built on Burrard Street in downtown Vancouver? The most expensive city on the planet and we're building a homeless shelter. How about building it somewhere a heck of a lot cheaper and shipping them there? Pay to retrain the lot of them and make them go to work and pay taxes. This is the dumbest idea yet.


I work my a$-s off in order to be able to afford a condo, in ABBOTSFORD!! And yet if I lived in a cardboard box downtown, I'd get a home here, paid for me! Excuse me??

Most of the time, I ignore this stuff. I assume comments like these are written by people who had a bad day, drank a few too many rye-and-gingers, and decided to take out their frustration with the world on their keyboard.

In other words, I hope that these are the views of the very few, not the many. I hope that most people really do understand that homelessness is not a lifestyle choice, or the beach party that never ended, but is rather a hellhole which lies below the bottom rung of the ladder of life, where the most intractably marginalized members of our community are lost, struggling, and, too often, too far from hope or help to know how to find their way back.

Projects like Burrard Street, offering safe, stable and secure housing, services and supports, are the way back for at least some of those folks.

It’s tragic to think that there are people in our community who don’t understand this.

On a more inspiring note

There’s an email in my inbox from the Greater Vancouver Compassion Network. I received it as one of the many folks who filled the auditorium at Gladstone Secondary on March 22 for two inspiring lectures by Karen Armstrong, one on the topic “What is Religion”, the other on her work in developing and promoting what is called the Charter for Compassion.

The Charter for Compassion is a document which urges the all peoples to embrace the core value of compassion in their public and private lives. Its text (you can find it on www.charterforcompassion.org) includes this passage:

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity.

Words to inspire, hard as they are to live by.

The GVCN (www. gvcn.ca) encourages all to adopt the Charter as individuals, and it hopes that someday Vancouver will become a compassionate city.

The Burrard Street project is strong evidence that this is not just simply wishful thinking. But those online comments still send a bit of a shiver down my spine.

– post by Geoff Plant

Without pipes, we all lose out
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  • politics101

    I too was disgusted to read those comments but there is one item that is not mentioned in the article – wasn’t this one of the projects originally approved by Sam Sullivan and the NPA council so while the current mayor gets the credit it was an really another political regime that started the ball rolling.

  • nutshell

    all for helping the “homeless” – these are people who are really struggling. BUT, i don’t see any longevity in this plan until the city starts addressing the problem of affordable housing, and job opportunities for the middle class – individuals who work hard, pay taxes and contribute to the city. until this issue gets tackled, we can watch as more and more people leave vancouver, or become part of the group referred to as our “most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens.”

  • It’s a hand up not a hand out.
    The middle class will get out of the crunch with consistent application of good public support and application to bridge our community. I am so surprised by the attitudes I hear from my own peers. …I feel like a bleeding heart and sappy mother trying to stand up for more compassion.
    I will keep at it! I appreciate the difficulty of issues (such as unemployment). I hope I can find work to build on teh great choices ahead of us.

  • Working Mom

    I think people are missing the point regarding lack of compassion.

    Dealing with the homeless, drug addicts and mental health messaging has been so hammered into our lives that we have either become sick of hearing about it or just no longer care. So much money and resources have been applied (and yes wasted) to address these issues and yet we are not seeing any real significant reduction.

    All we hear is how more money – TAX dollars – MY Money is being used to address these ongoing issues.

    The reality is that people who work and contribute to our society are getting fed-up. It almost feels like a ponsy scheme – give us your money and things will improve.

    And the reality is, NO IT IS NOT IMPROVING!

    Working people – WE the tax payers, are more behind in living standards, while people who don’t contribute, and yes, many of these people,(I agree, it is not their fault) are getting ahead, at our expense.

    I honestly think the government, non-profit organizations, and the general public are missing the key issue…. PREVENTION, PREVENTION, PREVENTION, and more PREVENTION.

    It is great that more social housing is being built – but what is the government and non-profit organizations doing to prevent people from falling to such a low standard of living and placing such a financial and emotional burden on taxpayers?

    Here is my view on where we fall short when it comes to Prevention and what should be done.

    Education and Youth Programs:
    Schools are failing our students. Schools are allowing kids to graduate with limited ability to read and write or have any life skills. All children are “special needs” some children learn differently and not straight forward text book learning.

    We need to develop more trade and professional service focused high schools and union-free apprenticeship programs. Not all children and families can afford Universities, and many children are not suited for University.

    We also need to create programs from K – 12 that educate children the bad effects of doing drugs and alcohol. Including the horrible effects of doing drugs and alcohol while pregnant. We have a very high percentage of people on the streets, in the prison system and doing crime who have FAS. This is preventable.

    We need to create more FREE youth programs, afterschool programs and weekend programs for ALL youth from pre-school to grade 12. Help keep our children safe from situations that can harm them and cause long term damage.

    Social Services and Dysfunctional Families:

    Social Services needs to step up and remove children from dangerous homes – keeping children in unsafe homes whether it is drugs, alcohol or physical/sexual abuse is not helping the child and causes permanent damage. Do the analysis and you will find that most of the criminals, drug addicts or mental health people come from abusive homes.

    Take the children out of those homes and find them loving homes.

    Encourage more people to open up their home for foster care or adoption of a child. Take a look at how in Latin America, (ie Mexico and Brazil) they have wonderful smaller orphanages (a home) that are run by a loving single family and the children remain there until they are 18 years old. These children have stability; they receive good education, and have nurturing foster parents rather than being moved around like here in BC.

    Did you know that Covenant House can only accept children that are 16 years or older and have to encourage younger children to go back to the abusive situation they ran away from whether it was their home or foster home? There is no safe haven or facility for children under the age of 16?

    Economics and Business Development:

    Vancouver needs to create more industries to help create work for uneducated or challenged people. Vancouver has a lot of unused industrial land – let’s create some new industries to get these people working. Why do we have Ikea expanding when we have enough wood that we can make local and lower cost furniture?

    Let’s have some more city-based agriculture, have a program to grow food to feed the poor – and I am NOT talking about community gardens or growing wheat in your yard. We have so many empty industrial land that we can create a number of farm fields to produce food. Create a tree and landscaping program for GVRD that includes a nursery for the lower mainland.

    There lots of ideas here to create new industries and economies in Vancouver, we need think creatively about new economic opportunities and put them into action.

    If I knew my tax dollars were being applied to programs that truly help people at risk and get them contributing to our society, I wouldn’t be so callous.

    However, as I see it now, I work so hard to keep a crappy roof over my family head, we live pay cheque to pay cheque and yet my always increasing tax dollars goes to an endless blackwhole of “gimmie your money.”

    Is it any wonder why we are so frustrated?

    • Max

      @Working Mom:

      I agree 100% that our schools need to open up more options – especially when it comes to the trades. Not all kids can afford or have the want to attend a post secondary institute.

      Schools should open programs up starting in Grade 10.

      They should also be offering life skills – like money management.

      I very much and support a hand up, not a hand out – but sadly, what we see areas like the DTES will not change. There are too many groups working to keep things the same – it is not to their benefit to see things get better.

    • David Dickinson

      If we raise all the working poor up, then who’s going to pour our Starbuck’s coffee? You can’t just “prevent” poverty the way you “prevent” a disease. Our society NEEDS poverty so that the rest of us can live an easy life. Are you willing to pay $10 for a cup of coffee? The reason you pay $2 is that the person behind the counter is getting minimum wage. How do you create a “program” to change that?

  • gman

    I have a question about the cost,40 million for 141 units is about $298000 per unit.Right now you can buy a studio downtown for around $300000 and that is including the developers profit.Here is a unit just off cambie http://www.realtor.ca/propertyDetails.aspx?propertyId=10653973&PidKey=1115507195 I understand they are including operational costs that will be very high,a 141 unit building with a low maintenance fee of only $150 a month is over 20 grand a month.So what am I missing? And why do they use such an expensive sight ? Im not sure what developers mark up is on private developments or their cost per square foot to build but this seems a little fishy to me.

    • Paul H

      @Gman – usually around 15% depending on the risk profile. Probably lower (5-10% if the government is effectively “buying” the units and effectively eliminating the market risk.

      Based on location, I suspect the land will be a fair contributor to the cost of the units. But your question and assumption is spot on, I personally think it is possible to build the units for cheaper within a “reasonable” proximity to DT.

      • gman

        Thanks Paul.We also have to remember our financing costs.Do we float 40 yr. bonds for are kids to deal with later or what? I would also like to see a map of city owned property.

        • Max


          Map of City owned sites: http://vancouver.ca/commsvcs/housing/reservedsites/owned/index.htm

          City-owned Social &
          Supportive Housing Sites
          525 Abbott St
          1134 Burrard St
          1050 Expo Blvd
          1237 Howe St
          2465 Fraser St
          337 W Pender St
          111 Princess Ave
          220 Princess Ave
          1338 Seymour St
          1005 Station St
          188 E 1st Ave
          215 – 225 W 2nd Ave
          1601 W 7th Ave
          3595 W 17th Ave

          Location map of City optioned sites:http://vancouver.ca/commsvcs/housing/reservedsites/optioned/index.htm

          • gman

            Thanks Max,now it makes even less sense to put it on burrard and it also looks like the city is sitting on some pretty high end property.It would seem the better way to go is to do a two for one trade and have some cash left in the kitty to boot.

  • gman

    I have a hairbrain scheme,we need a new hospital so why not build it on this site and add the housing above.The most expensive part of a tower is the underground and the non-typical lower floors,let the province pay for the hospital and we pay for the much less costly typical tower portion.When its done its an easy move across the street and that would free up the Saint Paul site for other development and we wouldn’t be without a hospital for any period of time.All labour on the project could be through a job training program.Because it is non-profit it would have no effect on private sector developers.Jeez Im starting to sound like a socialist.

  • Max

    I believe the site that is being developed housed a drop-in/shelter of sorts for teens, so the land is being re-purposed to the same.

    @gman – agreed; $298,000 per unit is stupidly high; but then again, the Pennsylvania Hotel in the DTES was re-furbished at a cost of roughly $347,000 per unit which average 250 sq/ft.

    • gman

      WOW Max now thats a serious redistribution of wealth.And lets not forget if you build it they will come.Free and open drug markets,nice weather and a condo with a sweet view sure beats the heck out of Winnipeg in December.We cant be all things to all people and I’m afraid we take away from the people who are in real need like those that were kicked out of riverview that don’t even know where they are.

  • Ned

    If we had enough money to spend on Olympic Games, and nothing to show for other than homelessness and escalating housing prices than we should be able to find the money to build those units. Period. So you people stop the hypocrisy. You don’t know how someone on welfare, homeless, jobless, feels until you are one! Try it, then we’ll talk. And Geoff, good article, as for the lack of media coverage, Hockey comes first, then Princess Kate’s baby, then global warming and David Suzuki resignation, …. last, local business. You’re a sucker for photo ops am I right, I know Robertson is, he, he.

    • gman

      Ned I don’t really disagree with you but I have a problem with cost,location and usage.I don’t think this site is conducive for single moms but it could be good for handicapped or mentally handicapped poor.I would hate to see it fill up with single male crack heads.I’m sure there is a way to get a bigger bang for our buck if we are going do these type of projects.

    • Max

      @Ned: The homeless issue was here long before the Olympics – just saying, and I think when times are tough for everyone and we read about addicts being given free needles, free crack pipes, free alcohol – with the ‘free’ list growing, people in general feel used. Personally, I hate the fact that my tax dollars are being handed over to ultimately help the end user in the drug trade,the drug dealers – sustain their lifestyles. If given a choice, there is no way I would give two cents to a lot of the programs that are funded via tax dollars in the DTES.

      With that said….

      I would like to see a program where some of the homeless & jobless could work, for proper pay on this development as well as other social housing devs.

      I am sure there are people out there that have the basic skill sets that could be offered jobs. What about having some of the young people that will benefit from this project, work on it? Teach them something.

      • David Dickinson

        Free alcohol in the DTES? Where can I get free booze? What is the address? I’m in a real bad way and need a fix right now.

  • Mario

    Helping the mentally ill has all my support, but that’s it.
    Politicians have created a cult out of “helping people”, but they fail to aknowledge most of the homeless people are quite happy getting-by with all the handouts they get, and no, I’m not a cold SOB, it is quite clear the more help and charitable organizations the more homeless appear. Why? Because there will always be people looking to live at the expense of the rest, and that is just fine, as long as we as taxpayers are not milked. Someone in the Privince’s comment mentioned about sending them to a place where workforce is needed instead of building housing here, and that person is right.
    It is unethical for the Government to spend millions on people that do not want to work while charging working people for that. What is the message? Really. There is this girl panhandling outside the London Drugs on West Broadway at Vine and also outside the IGA close by. She is very healthy, has a little dog but will not work, she preffers to beg for money. That is what the government is creating, fine healthy young people realizing they don’t need to work because they will be fed regardless, and to me THAT is more offensive and hurtfull. They, the people obsessed with “helping” are taking away her humanity.

  • Max

    This is a step int he right direction: No More Free Meals: A Church Changes Its Approach


  • Max

    @ gman: The site fits the 1134 Burrard Street addy listed in the City’s stock.

    It is roughly Burrard and Davie.

  • gman

    Max I would think 1134 Burrard has to be a very pricey piece of land and I’m sure there are developers holding much less expensive land that they would jump at the chance to trade up and throw in the balance in cash to make it work.I also think your link to the no more free meals sounds like a good program that deserves a closer look .Thanks.

  • Karla Sofen

    Why are we always enabling bad behaviour?

    • Birdy

      Because it feels good to do what we believe is the right thing, even if it’s been empirically proven to be the wrong thing.
      Since we’ve been doing the wrong thing for so long, we get emotionally attached to it, leading to confirmation bias, which stops us from learning why we’re wrong.

  • PJams

    Is there any information regarding the requirements to apply/obtain housing in this building? I’ve heard that in some cases, there are couples living in 3 bedroom, subsized apts even though their children have grown up and left the home. This seems highly inefficient and there really should be a policy in place to ensure that fair access to this type of housing is available to those who need it.

    Perhaps a mean-tested review should occur annually? I’m all in favour of helping those down on their luck with getting a fresh start. But if people are able to successfully transition, then the units should be made available to those who need it more.

  • David Dickinson

    When you buy your coffee at Starbucks, do you think the low-paid young person serving you is a crack-head?

    It’s so much easier to believe all poor people are crack-heads, because then we can rationalize that their poverty is all their own fault. They just aren’t trying hard enough, so they deserve the misery they find themselves in.

    My daughter is 24, makes minimum wage, and pays $850 per month for a glorified walk-in closet she rents from a rich person. She’s not a crack-head, neither are most poor people. The way we deal with out collective guilt is to demonize innocent, hard working people like my daughter and wrongly portray them as drug addicts.

    Next time you go shopping to spend your disposable income (a foreign concept to the working poor), take a closer look at who’s serving you at the retail outlets. The working poor outnumber the street people 99 to 1. The difference is that the 99% are “invisible.”