COLUMN: Mayor Corrigan has his say on the homeless shelter issue

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Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan tells the story of a nice young couple, long-time residents, with a couple of kids who came to council a few years ago to ask to split their lot in two.

They wanted to build a new house on one half for the grandparents, to be close, and to benefit from the babysitting.

It went against policy, but enough councillors were swayed by the heart-tugging story. Corrigan opposed it: the policy’s there for a reason, he said, and you deal with people the same whether they’ve lived in Burnaby 40 years, or they’re a Vancouver realtor out to make a buck.

Just a few weeks after the subdivision went through, the couple cashed in, packed up and moved out of town.

It’s an anecdote that bolsters a view Corrigan has carried throughout his career in politics: Don’t let emotions steer you off course.

Yet for many people it happens often, and most recently he said my columns questioning Corrigan on his opposition to a permanent homeless shelter in Burnaby were a case in point. I’m not the only one who’s raised the issue, of course, and it’s one of the few issues on which his otherwise stellar reputation takes a hit.

We met last week for lunch at Riverway Golf Course to go over this issue. And while my arctic char was delicious and Corrigan made some compelling arguments, I can’t say I left completely satisfied. But I’ll try to be as faithful as I can to what he said.

It’d be dead easy, Corrigan said, to put up a couple million dollars or offer a piece of land so the province could build a permanent shelter somewhere in Burnaby. In one stroke of the pen he could silence his critics.

But, he’s quick to add, it wouldn’t achieve anything to address the problem or help Burnaby as a whole.

The people in permanent shelters—of which Vancouver has dozens and most cities in the region have at least one—are by and large beyond hope, he said. They’re either addicted, seriously mentally ill, or habitual criminals. Some live in rooms crammed with junk floor-to-ceiling, and many rooms are infested with bugs. And, as he told me, many are the type of folks who, if they found you dying on the sidewalk would pull out your gold fillings. Are these the kind of people Burnaby residents want living in their neighbourhood, he asks, when the province doesn’t even assign them a social worker?

“The people (in shelters) are the impossible to house… so addicted that all they worry about is the opportunity to feed their addiction, whether it’s alcohol, drugs or anything else.”

His “gold fillings” anecdote is harsh, but Corrigan believes his life experience gives him a more realistic view than self-satisfied journalists who only pick up the “homeless” issue when the mercury drops.

Raised by a single mom in East Van, he later worked as a probation officer and prison guard before spending 31 years as a criminal lawyer.

And in his experience, people who end up in permanent shelters are there because they’ve been deemed beyond hope. Had they shown an inclination to set their lives on course they’d have been fished out by someone who smells a success story in the offing. Shelters, he said, are Band-Aids that address only the most visible aspect of a much larger problem that includes a lack of services and supports, and a lack of affordable housing.

“Where some people worry about the indigent, the homeless, I worry about the working poor. We need these people in our cities, and we need to find a way to keep these people in our cities. These people are critical to the economic life of our community.”

While Ottawa and the province have abandoned those in poverty, they address only the most visible problem, Corrigan said.

In recent years the province has invested stacks of money in shelters—such as converting many old single-room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside. Corrigan compares the situation to a police force so short on staff they only have time to respond to murders.

If there were appropriate places for people residing in these shelters, they’d no longer be needed, he said.

Some should be in addiction treatment. For the most extremely mentally ill, a place like Riverview needs to re-open. And some should be in group homes.

All that would be needed then is a transitional shelter—something Corrigan said he’d be willing to accept in Burnaby—with each new arrival assigned a social worker who would point them on their way.

Throughout our conversation, the over-arching point Corrigan made is that he is a mayor of a municipality, and his powers have limits. People often point fingers at civic government because it is the most accessible to people, when in reality Ottawa or Victoria should be called to account.

Mayors, he said, serve constituents best when they focus on what cities are empowered to do.

“From a public policy point of view, I see it as bad policy for local governments to go into social services,” he said. Cities, of course, have been gravitating this way significantly in recent years, hiring social planners and opening shelters. The City of Toronto even provides employment services.

Instead, Corrigan said his priority is to use the tools available to do what cities do best.

Edmonds, once the city’s neighbourhood beyond hope, has been the focus of the city’s attention and money. The mayor and council have been proactive in encouraging new development in the area, and have built a new library and are building a community centre.

“Look what I did with my tool chest to … strengthen a part of Burnaby that was in danger of becoming the new Downtown Eastside,” he said.

Whereas Vancouver pours resources for parks, recreation and the like into the wealthy west side of the city, Corrigan said he’s invested where it’s needed most.

And it benefits all residents, he said, by avoiding the ghettoization of a neighbourhood.

Unfortunately, gentrification is one of his only tools available to improve the area, he said. The city has a city-wide moratorium on the conversion of rental accommodation into strata, and it also attempted to create “rental zones” to prevent rental buildings from being replaced by strata—a move the province rejected.

And now the city is looking into legalizing secondary suites—though it’s one of the last cities to the table—to increase affordable housing options.

Really, he argues, we need to look to senior levels of government for some of the most effective solutions on not just the homelessness issue, but housing as a whole.

No one is building rental accommodations in Metro Vancouver these days. Burnaby squeezes a few units from developers in exchange for added density on projects, but the economics just don’t work for them to build more.

Ottawa has removed incentives for developers to even build rentals, Corrigan said. In the past, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation offered low-interest loans for projects deemed affordable. And for a time there was something with the awkward name Multi-Unit Residential Buildings (MURBs) that was a tax shelter that encouraged investors to support the construction of housing.

Corrigan calls it a great program, if poorly executed, that was eventually scrapped.

And Corrigan is a big fan of co-ops.  They’re self-regulating, and the mix of incomes prevents them from being ghettoes, he said. But Ottawa got out of its last large federal housing program in 1993.

Things like shelters, and other “single-stream” housing, he said, merely drive down property values in the area and invite more housing of the same type.

If Burnaby had invested in a shelter in Edmonds 10 years ago, as some had suggested, that city centre could be in far worse shape than today, he said.

In the end, Corrigan says it comes down to the question of whether Burnaby residents want the city to stretch beyond its mandate.

Should the city stick to what it does best, and what its purpose is? Or should it expand into areas where, historically, it’s had no place, like social housing?

Corrigan will tell you there’s a reason Burnaby is considered the best-run (Macleans magazine) and one of the most highly regarded municipal governments in the country.

It’s run in a disciplined way. There is focus.

And the mayor is not sidetracked by the emotional argument—whether it’s from a newspaper editor uncomfortable with the idea of people sleeping on sidewalks and in parks in the gritty city, or a young couple who’d like to cut their city lot in half.

Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.

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