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This article was published 22/4/2010 (2560 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A Main Street hotel once synonymous with inner-city misery will soon become a safe haven for dozens of Winnipeg's most vulnerable citizens.
The 104-year-old Bell Hotel, one of the last remaining heritage buildings on the west side of the Main Street strip, will be transformed into housing for approximately 40 homeless people under a federal-provincial program designed to get people off the street.
Today over the noon hour, Ottawa and Manitoba are expected to announce plans to spend up to $5 million to convert once-notorious skid-row rooms into bachelor suites for people whose addictions or mental health issues prevent them from finding anywhere else to live.
Downtown development agency CentreVenture bought the property during the summer of 2007. Originally, the agency wanted to convert the building into residences for Red River College and University of Winnipeg students.
But over the next two years, all three levels of government were convinced the Bell could do more to alleviate the housing crisis in Winnipeg -- where residential-apartment vacancy is less than one per cent -- by providing homes for the chronically homeless in the city, where the total homeless population is estimated to be anywhere from 300 to 2,500 people.
The renovated Bell will operate under a "housing-first" philosophy that will not require its residents to stop drinking or otherwise improve themselves before they're admitted.
Studies in the United States have shown homeless people with addictions and mental health issues are more likely to reduce their substance abuse and take their medication if they have their own space, rather than shuffling in and out of shelters or huddling below bridges and along riverbanks.
Tenants at the Bell must commit to staying in touch with social services agencies, say sources familiar with the project. They won't face time limits to remain, but project proponents do expect some if not many residents will improve to the point where they can find other places to live.
Point Douglas Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, who represents the north side of downtown, said he is happy to see residential development take place on the Main strip without displacing vulnerable people. The city destroyed several old hotels along the strip in the 1990s.
"When you build housing in this neighbourhood, the last thing you want to do is gentrify it," he said.
Officials with the province and CentreVenture declined to comment before today's formal announcement. So did social service agencies associated with the project.
Other sources said the renovation constitutes a clever use of public funds. U.S. studies suggest it's cheaper to provide housing for chronically homeless people than to pay for the medical care stemming from exposure to the elements and street violence -- as well as the ambulance rides, policing and other costs associated with removing intoxicated people from the street and transferring them to hospitals or shelters.
The project may also include main-floor public washrooms that could reduce the incidence of public urination along the Main Street strip, where other new developments include a Winnipeg Regional Health Authority building and the future home of the United Way.
In January, Main Street Project director Brian Bechtel said the Bell renovation has created a positive buzz among his clients, many of whom are heartened by the prospect of obtaining a place of their own. Architects even interviewed some clients to ensure the interior design will meet their needs, he said at the time.
The housing-first philosophy was pioneered in New York City in the early 1990s and has since become a widespread U.S. policy. In 2008, the New York Times credited housing-first programs for reducing the number of homeless people across the United States.
At the same time, housing advocates began to complain more attention must be paid to so-called marginally homeless people and even entire families who move in and out of low-end hotels or are forced to move in with relatives, the Times reported.
-- with files from Dave O'Brien, Larry Kusch