Ending Homelessness in Vancouver: It Takes a Boardroom

Where government and social-service organizations have failed, a group of ?Vancouver business leaders is stepping ?in to offer a bold new approach to ?ending homelessness.


Where government and social-service organizations have failed, a group of 
Vancouver business leaders is stepping 
in to offer a bold new approach to 
ending homelessness.

On the hottest day of the summer – perhaps the decade, with temperature records falling across the province – there’s one place in Vancouver where worsted wool suits remain de rigueur. A stream of women in heels and nylons and men with ties cinched tight parts around the flower beds outside the Wall Centre, regroups, then pulses in knots through the revolving doors and rejoins in a confluence coursing down the escalator to a cavernous underground ballroom. At the table of honour sit Mayor Gregor Robertson and city manager Penny Ballem; flanking them are former premier Mike Harcourt, Premier Gordon Campbell’s former adviser Ken Dobell, former attorney general Geoff Plant and Alberta Minister of Housing Yvonne Fritz. 

The draw? Philip Mangano, former executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness – or less formally, former president George W. Bush’s housing czar – has come to tell Vancouver’s business community how they can end homelessness.

In carefully modulated tones – dipping at times to the humble cadence of a simple country boy, at others soaring to fire-and-brimstone admonitions – he tells the rapt audience that it’s as simple as Economics 101: supply and demand. You ask the customer what he wants, then you give it to him.

Mangano tells how he visited the now infamous HEAT shelter (which has since closed down) on Howe Street a few nights earlier and asked one of its temporary residents what he wanted most. A home, was the answer. So the solution is simple, Mangano says: you count how many people need homes, you count the number of homes available, then you draw up a business plan aimed at filling the gap between the two. The concept has caught fire south of the border; 65 cities, spanning the continent from Boston to San Diego, have drawn up detailed business plans for ending homelessness, complete with budgets, benchmarks and end dates. 

And now Vancouver can be added to the list. Following the gospel of Mangano, the non-profit Streetohome Foundation has drawn up an ambitious plan that promises to end homelessness in Vancouver by 2019. The plan includes 19 specific action items based on strategies Streetohome has identified as essential to ending homelessness. For example, one action might be to invest in creating 200 housing units for a particular at-risk population, such as young addicted aboriginal mothers. 

The Vancouver Foundation got Streetohome off the ground by providing $500,000 in seed funding, and the City of Vancouver and the province each kicked in a matching amount. Streetohome has amassed an impressive coalition in recent months, with heavy hitters from government and business sharing space around the board table and including the support of front-line social-service providers. On the corporate side, board members include mining magnate Frank Giustra, Intrawest LLC founder Joe Houssian and BC Hydro president and CEO Bob Elton, while BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay represents the province and Penny Ballem speaks for the city. Influential former politicians and bureaucrats round out the board, including Harcourt, Plant and former Vancouver Coastal Health CEO Ida Goodreau.

The deft hand that orchestrated this unlikely coalition is Jae Kim, a 36-year-old former New York lawyer and fundraiser who was named president of the foundation in August 2008 precisely because of her outsider status; in the fractious world of B.C. politics, no one would be able to accuse her of partisan affiliations.

Kim brings to the job an impressive resumé of fundraising and coalition-building, combined with social-justice advocacy. Born in South Korea, she spent most of her childhood in Argentina, Paraguay and Ecuador as her father pursued entrepreneurial opportunities. She moved to the U.S. with her family at age 15 and after completing a law degree at Oxford, spent 6½ years practicing law in New York City. She worked on several high-profile white-collar crime cases during that time, including defending Martha Stewart against charges filed by shareholders accusing the domestic diva of failing to protect the Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia brand. 

Former New York lawyer Jae Kim

While working on these cases, Kim also found time for pro bono work, including representing victims of domestic violence, many of whom were immigrant women afraid to talk for fear of being deported. (“It was heartbreaking,” she says of the experience. “There’s only so much you can do from a legal perspective.”) Perhaps even more discouraging was her pro bono work representing two Texas death-row inmates; both attempts to stave off executions were unsuccessful. (“Both were in a very conservative district of Texas,” she explains. “It was a pretty discouraging experience.”)

While her commitment to social justice is impressive, perhaps the trump card that secured the top spot at Streetohome was Kim’s track record in fundraising. While in New York, she served on the board of the Women’s Leadership Forum of the Democratic National Committee, raising funds for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. Although Kerry lost the election to George W. Bush, the experience led Kim to Eliot Spitzer’s successful 2006 campaign for governor of New York. She was involved in bringing private sector funding to government projects, including the “I Love NY” campaign.

The decision to move to Vancouver in November 2007 was a personal one: her husband, Tom Hakemi, whom she met while working at Shearman and Sterling LLP law firm in New York, is from Van-
couver, and the couple decided they’d like to raise a family here. Upon arriving, Kim volunteered for a number of non-profits and soon found herself before Streetohome’s founders, being interviewed for a job she hadn’t applied for. She met with founders Ken Dobell and Don Fairbairn, who explained that the foundation’s original goal was to bring private sector money to homelessness. After spending several weeks talking with many of the NGOs working with the homeless, and meeting with government and business leaders, Kim accepted the offer to become president of the foundation, welcoming the opportunity to apply her fundraising and coalition-building skills to one of the city’s most urgent social challenges.

Under Kim’s leadership, a 10-year plan to end homelessness began to take shape, following Mangano’s lead. The first step, she says, is to establish a baseline by quantifying the demand. The most frequently cited number of homeless in Vancouver, Kim explains, is 1,700, the number of homeless counted during the most recent annual 24-hour enumeration. 

“We didn’t just take that number,” she says. “We dug into the data, we used demographers to look at it, and we used an algorithm to come up with a prevalent annual number, and we believe that number is close to 3,700.”

Streetohome then applied an equally scientific method to quantify the existing supply of housing units, gathering data from multiple sources, including the front-line agencies managing the Downtown Eastside’s single-occupancy rooming houses. 

“We did a full analysis, so now we know what is actually the gap,” Kim explains. “If we assume there’s 3,700 homeless and there’s another flow coming from people who are becoming homeless, if we do the math up to 2019, how many housing units do we need per year to meet the demand?”

Supply and demand go beyond physical housing units, Kim adds; the formula also has to include the services that address the needs of the chronically homeless and the hard to house: the counselling, the cooking and housecleaning, and other social services for those with addictions or mental health issues. And here again, Streetohome holds out the promise that the scientific method can eliminate a social problem that government and social agencies have for decades been unable to bring under control. 

“There are products out there for this population that have worked,” Kim says. And while Streetohome doesn’t have the resources to simply fund all the services needed for Vancouver’s homeless, it can fund demonstration projects that might help set the course of public policy. “If you know a product works, you first create a prototype,” Kim explains. “You test it. You get it out to the market. You show it works. You publicize the hell out of the fact it works, then the trend changes; then hopefully you can create the momentum and the will to have the policy changes necessary to get there.”

While Kim makes a compelling argument for an empirical approach to ending homelessness, the bottom line is always going to be money, and Streetohome’s real allure to government, non-profits and front-line social workers may be in its promise of bringing new funding to the table. (Streetohome was, at press time, expected to release its 10-year plan in November, with details therein of its 
private fundraising goals.) “Eventually we are trying to raise funding from the 
private sector,” Kim explains. “So you need to get some high-level, recognizable, credible deep pockets to the table.”

The promise of a no-nonsense business approach to a seemingly intractable problem may be the bait that has lured those deep pockets. BC Hydro’s Bob Elton puts it best when he says, “Frankly, there’s a bit of that challenge: this is something that’s right in front of us every year, and we should be able to solve it. The businesspeople on the board are all people who have led organizations, and I think everyone feels we should be able to solve it.”

And, Elton continues, Streetohome speaks a language they can understand: “A good organization, regardless of whether it’s for profit or a not for profit, will do good things like set goals and try to achieve them.”

To Darrell Burnham, executive director of Coast Mental Health, the introduction of private business to a problem that for decades has been predominantly the domain of public agencies represents a breath of fresh air. “The business minds, they’re lateral thinkers; they’re not boxed in by thinking it’s going to be all government or nothing. And they’ve also asked the obvious questions that people closer to the field may have stopped asking.” And the promise of private funding, he adds, offers a more dependable alternative to public funding, which tends to wax and wane with election cycles.

However, the private sector is no less vulnerable to cyclical gyrations, points out Judy Graves, housing advocate for the City of Vancouver. She looks back to the summer of 2008, when an end to homelessness seemed within grasp: “Things were so hopeful. We had a housing minister who really understood the picture and who was going ahead like gangbusters all over the province. We were making steps to elect the current mayor, who gave the intention of ending homelessness in six years. We had the Streetohome Foundation, with all of the know-how. . . . We had everything orchestrating to a crescendo; it was like a tsunami that was going to roll forward. Then we got into the fall and the crash happened and everything stopped.”

Graves gives full credit to Streetohome for bringing a fresh perspective to homelessness and adds that a business approach will introduce much-needed efficiencies to the not-for-profit sector. But ultimately, she says, any attempt to end homelessness will always come down to funding. “My concern is that a plan without guaranteed funding is a dream,” she says. “I’m concerned about whether we have yet another unfunded plan.”

Liz Evans, executive director of the Portland Hotel Society (PHS Community Services Society), offers tentative support. “I don’t think it can hurt at all,” she says hopefully. “Homelessness affects everyone, and we are all supposed to be trying to come up with solutions, so I think ultimately [Streetohome] is a good thing.”

But like Graves, Evans says solving homelessness is going to come down to new housing, which means new sources of funding. She points out that a new housing project that can accommodate 100 homeless people costs about $25 million, so whether we put the number of Vancouver homeless at 1,700 or 3,700, it would be unrealistic to expect the deep pockets around the Streeto­home table to carry that $425-million to $750-million burden themselves. While it appears unlikely that the province – now facing a $2.8-billion deficit – will come up with new funding any time soon, the province remains tight-lipped; Shayne Ramsay, CEO of BC Housing, declined a request for an interview for this story.

Meanwhile, despite the long odds against Streetohome’s claim that it can end homelessness in 10 years, everyone is clinging to the hope that maybe this time we really do have a solution. Liz Evans voices the wishes of many when she says, “They are ambitious and optimistic, and hopefully they’re right.”