A Complicated Kindness

Frustrated by bureaucracy and inaction, the city's elite rolled up their sleeves to solve homelessness. Two years and $2 million later, the Streetohome group is no closer to a fix

February 5, 2010

By Frances Bula / Photo: Andrew Zbihlyj

Housing Minister Rich Coleman is presiding over the opening of yet another homeless shelter. The ritual has become commonplace in the city, the benedictions dispensed by rote: thanks be to the premier for not cutting the housing budget. Thanks be to the St. James Community Services Society for opening this refuge for 26 women. Thanks be to so-and-so; we couldn’t have done this without you. But then, singling out a group of businessmen sitting inconspicuously amid the gathering, he veers off-script.

Carl Vanderspek, Terry Selman, and Colin Smith donated this industrial-storage warehouse, raising the money for its renovations and getting the permits needed for the shelter within weeks. “There are lots of groups that have talked and talked and talked but done nothing,” says Coleman. “I’m meeting with another group this afternoon where I’ll be saying, ‘You guys have been sitting on something for 18 months.’
“These guys moved in seven weeks.”

The public impatience Coleman displays is unusual for the veteran cabinet minister, one of the B.C. Liberals’ dominant players. Normally, he reserves his ex-RCMP tough talk for the backrooms. But then, the targets of his irritation are unusual too. The Streetohome Foundation harnesses some of Vancouver’s most elite business folk. They got together two years ago with the idea that they would show the way to solving the city’s homelessness problems. But it’s turned out that applying business savvy to a complex social problem—while navigating an economic meltdown, debates over who should pay for what, and conflicting ideologies of homelessness—has been more complicated than anyone expected.
The idea of getting the city’s business community to lead the charge against homelessness started almost four years ago. Judy Rogers, then city manager, was convinced we needed to try something different. Rogers hired former deputy premier Ken Dobell and consultant Don Fairbairn. Dobell came to believe that nothing would change if homelessness efforts stayed on the same tired track of province, city, and housing groups. There had to be a source of new ideas, new money, and new enthusiasm. The obvious answer: the city’s business leaders. “After a while, folks just tune out the Downtown Eastside groups,” he says. “It’s hard to tune out Frank Giustra.”

Dobell and Fairbairn came up with the idea of a special tax break for homelessness donations and a special foundation made up of businesspeople to help collect and disperse those donations. The tax break went nowhere—they believe Ottawa worried it would open itself to hundreds of other groups arguing the same thing. But the foundation idea kept going. In March 2008, the Streetohome board welcomed an honour roll of the city’s business class. Dobell got Giustra, the mining magnate and philanthropist extraordinaire, as planned. Plus condo-marketing powerhouse Bob Rennie, Intrawest founder Joe Houssian, developer John Mackay, Business Council of B.C. chief Virginia Greene, Vancity CEO Tamara Vrooman—two dozen in all, more people than most organizations allow.
A month later, the board found its guru. At a leadership prayer breakfast, Philip Mangano, the charismatic and sometimes controversial then-head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, issued an appeal. Exhorting the crowd of 1,000 in his characteristic style—a cross between revival tent and motivational seminar—he urged them to use their special business acumen to heal the city’s biggest open sore.

Here was someone who spoke Streetohome’s language: Yes, there’s a problem, but there are solutions. It would just take a strategy. “He made it clear this was a problem where the business community could apply their unique problem-solving skills,” remembers Virginia Greene. They could do something alongside well-meaning housing workers and government that no one could do alone. “When you look at the not-for-profit community, they’re right down in the trenches,” says Greene. “They have little time to get up to an altitude to look at what’s driving this.”

In the early months, all kinds of ambitious talk filtered out. Giustra and his friends would donate and raise $25 million, maybe $100 million; he would buy a building; the group would buy several buildings; they were scouting sites; they would show the city what could be done if homeless people were given the right kinds of help besides just the housing. They would fix it within six years.

Among them shone a bright new face. A New York lawyer, Democratic Party fundraiser, sometime volunteer for social causes like domestic violence, Jae Kim had recently arrived in the city with her Vancouver-born lawyer husband. Kim, then 35, wasn’t aligned with anyone, which made her the ideal candidate to run the foundation. In August 2008, she was filled with enthusiasm. She was also clear about what the foundation wasn’t going to do. It wasn’t going to copy the Calgary foundation model, where business provided leadership but not a lot of dollars. “I’m asking for a lot of cash,” said Kim, fresh from a stint heading up strategic partnerships for the state of New York where, among other things, she worked on a campaign to rebrand I ♥ NY. And another point: “We don’t want to be just writing cheques to this nonprofit and that nonprofit,” said Kim, as she spoke tirelessly for a couple of hours, rolling through all her ideas about homelessness and her exotic former political life. “The best example in the U.S. is what they did in Atlanta. The private sector pumped in a lot of money to create a prototype.” With her faint American accent and her charming way of making the business case for social action, she was like a younger, female version of Mangano.

In October 2008, the foundation was scheduled to make a major announcement. But October became November became December. Finally, in February 2009, the foundation had a launch—but no plan. Instead, it presented a couple of cheques to “this nonprofit and that nonprofit”: $500,000 to rebuild the Aboriginal Mother Centre on the Eastside; $250,000 to fix up a leased hotel for the Atira Women’s Resource Society, paid for by people on the board who simply wrote cheques. (That was on top of $500,000 given to Mayor Gregor Robertson in December for his first round of shelters.)
With the recession, talk of an easy $25 million or buying buildings outright disappeared. And then another twist: the province’s sudden spurt of energy on the housing front. The need for the city’s business leaders to play a distinct role had been clear when Coleman was insisting the province’s homelessness problems could be solved by handing out rent supplements. But as the Olympics approached and homeless numbers continued rising, Coleman threw himself into an unprecedented series of real-estate plays to buy, build, and finance social housing—and he promised the troubled homeless people moving in would get lots of help there with their medical, psychiatric drug, alcohol, and job problems.
Streetohome launched a massive research effort to figure out what its niche in the market might be, the best strategic spot for its dollars. Some of the results were new and different. The foundation hired the international firm Compton Fundraising Consultants to test the donor waters in Vancouver; they found that the group could likely raise $30 to $35 million. But there was also a certain amount of collecting statistics from other agencies or rediscovering the documented-elsewhere, like the fact that it costs a lot more money in police, hospital, and social services to leave someone on the street than to give that person a place to live.

The board occasionally floated off into discussions about holding galas or funding a choral-music concert to raise money for homelessness. Foundation board chair John McLernon, a cofounder of the real-estate firm Colliers International, acknowledged that individual enthusiasms sometimes boiled over. “The advantage of a big board is that it covers a lot of constituencies. But it’s harder to keep control of people’s ideas and ambitions.”

A big announcement in November 2009 for sure, Kim said in September, before she went on maternity leave. But it was delayed again. Even a donation of nearly $1 million to a federal pilot project went unnoticed for weeks, due to a communications glitch. Finally, on January 12, 2010, after spending $700,000 of government money on research and operating costs, Streetohome released its 10-year plan. The 56-page booklet contained some new ideas and numbers: there are really 3,700 people who are homeless and need housing, not just the 1,500 who happened to be sleeping outside or in shelters during the last homeless count. One of the groups that should get special attention is aboriginal mothers. The 2,000 units needed beyond what the province is already building will take $500 million. If Streetohome raises $50 million, that should help bring in the rest.

But other points did little more than echo the dozens of 10-year plans and action reports that have spread like kudzu in the last decade: Focus on the chronically homeless. Build permanent housing, not shelters. Do something about kids in foster care and guys getting out of prison to slow the homelessness production line. Along with timeless chestnuts like “encourage the federal government to increase funding for subsidized housing.”

In just under two years, the board had written cheques to the tune of $2.1 million to four projects bankrolled mostly because someone thought to ask. As for where the foundation’s as-yet-unraised money would go, members struggled: maybe they should donate it all back to the government. “There was a lot of excitement in the beginning,” says Janice Abbott, the head of Atira, a resource centre for marginalized women, who sat on one of the foundation’s myriad committees. “If I had to use a word to describe what’s happening now, it’s just ‘fatigue.’ ” Abbott is not one of those in the nonprofit sector rolling in Schadenfreude at the spectacle of the city’s top business leaders getting mired in the same complications every other homelessness rescue effort endures. Abbott, who got $250,000 from Streeto­home to fix up a leased hotel in the Downtown Eastside that is now a livable home for some of the neighbourhood’s old-timers, is enthusiastic about business getting involved and believes there are many things that a private group could do that governments can’t or won’t. “In any project I’ve ever done, there’s always some money you have to raise privately to make the project work—a financial gap. Business folks could fill that gap.” No one thinks Streetohome’s members aren’t genuine in their concern. It’s clear that many of those at the foundation are ready to write personal cheques the minute they’re asked. And none joined for the glamour of being on the board or because they couldn’t think how else to fill their spare time. “I know that they sincerely do want to make a difference. I just think they’ve been frustrated in their attempts,” says Alice Sundberg, a consultant who has worked in the nonprofit housing area for 30 years and who also sat on one of the foundation’s committees.

People also accept that the business community has a valuable role to play in motivating donors to give. Local housing groups, except for faith-based groups like Union Gospel Mission or the Salvation Army, get negligible amounts from donations. Many people—the same ones who donate to hospitals and health programs—believe it’s the government’s job to house the homeless. Even if they don’t believe that, housing seems like too incomprehensible a project. It’s hard for them to see what $10,000 or even $50 million does. If the city’s business leaders can convince them otherwise, they will have accomplished something.

Two weeks after the group released its 10-year plan, it held yet another meeting. In a boardroom high above Granville Street, Penny Ballem, Vancouver’s city manager and successor to Judy Rogers, was holding out for the city to get more money for temporary housing from the promised $25 million. The city had been hammering at the demand for weeks—leaving people on the streets for two years while permanent housing is being built is a no-go. Ballem was firm but polite, careful not to express the sense of disappointment and betrayal other staff felt at the sight of a group the city had launched and funded preparing to dedicate its fundraising efforts to helping out the province.

Foundation staff, meanwhile, grumbled that the city was trying to “take over.” And BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay argued the money would be better spent on permanent housing, since the city likely wouldn’t even be able to find temporary housing before new buildings started opening. Bob Rennie, in his broker role, tried to make the case that giving money to the province would leverage more but that the foundation wouldn’t do itself any favours by alienating the city. Giustra was in Colombia, but his representative took notes on the arguments over where his boss’s money and fundraising efforts were supposedly going to go.

By the end, it looked as though the group was closer to an agreement that future provincial projects—those that met the board’s standards—would get $20 million and the city would get $5 million. The discussion was exhausting. And, McLernon and Greene acknowledged later, the foundation is going to have to find a way to demonstrate next year and the year after that their money made a difference, because there is no easy mechanism to prove it.

Such arguments have occasioned much soul-searching among board members and occasional doubts—echoed by potential donors surveyed—about whether it’s even possible to eradicate homelessness. Don Fairbairn, the guy who helped create the idea of the foundation and is now a board member, said there is only one other problem any of them have faced that has the same kind of complex business-case parameters: climate change. “It requires individuals to act, it requires what looks like a lot of money, and there’s uncertainty as to whether you’ll get a return and who will get a return,” he said, slowly and deliberately spelling out all the complicating factors. He and others on the board remain optimistic that their team has the persistence and drive to break free of the paralysis that kind of murky ambiguity can induce. But he doesn’t downplay the impact it can have on others. “It’s easy to walk away.”

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