VANCOUVER - One of the more fascinating sideshows to Mayor Gregor Robertson's commitment to end homelessness is the debate it provokes among people about whether a city should even bother trying to do something about homelessness.

I have heard so many people in the last few weeks -- on my blog, on radio shows, in private conversations -- express extreme doubt that a city can do anything.

This post from "LP" on my blog is pretty typical:

The problem of homelessness is not one that can be solved alone by the city, there are just too many issues wrapped in why people 'are' to begin with.

Many homeless have mental health issues and those people do need our help though. That isn't so easy. I know people with these issues and helping them is sometimes almost impossible.

The real issue here is that homelessness is a much bigger issue than the city can handle on it's own. Gregor and his Vision team have promised a lot and at most will ever only make a dent.

LP has some valid points. Homelessness started to emerge in North America in the late 1980s and early 1990s for all kinds of reasons that are much larger than individual cities: mental institutions were being shut down as what was part of a well-intentioned move to integrate the mentally ill into regular life, governments started to cut housing programs, cheap housing became scarcer as building codes got stricter and builders got less interested in building for renters with declining incomes.

That's all accelerated over the decades for all kinds of reasons. Housing programs got cut even more. Governments tightened up welfare rules, making it difficult for many people to get any income at all.

And, one of the most difficult trends to deal with, everyone started to accept homelessness and almost shrug their soldiers. People sleeping on the streets started to feel like it was okay, because so many people were out there. And those watching the streets fill up started to shift from feeling appalled to saying to themselves, "Oh, there's nothing we can do because they want to be out there."

I think that shift is understandable. The problems seem overwhelming for the average citizen. It's hard to see how to change anything. So people start to deal with the cognitive dissonance by telling themselves that nothing can be done because 1) it's someone else's problem to fix 2) the homeless are impossible to deal with 3) homelessness has always been with us. And so on.

But the reality is that all kinds of cities and regions are not giving up and they are finding strategies to, not eliminate, but reduce, homelessness, as you can see from checking out websites like this one

Of course, it's hard for cities to be the leaders because they do have limited resources and it should be higher levels of government that are leading the charge. But they're not.

The fact is that cities are the ones confronted with the direct impact of homelessness and so they're the most motivated to do something. Provinces and the federal government just aren't as directly hit by it.

Many MLAs and MPs come from regions where homelessness is not the top issue. And no provincial or federal rep has yet lost an election because s/he didn't do enough about homelessness, the way some city mayors have. They just don't pay a political price for their lack of action.

So, like it or not, cities are going to continue to be the place where homelessness becomes a priority. That's not just happening in Vancouver.

Surrey, Kelowna, Nanaimo, Victoria, Langley, and Maple Ridge, just to name a few, have all mobilized on the homelessness issue in recent years.

The real trick for cities is not whether they should do something, but what they should do.

Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision team wanted to show they were off to a fast start this week, so-they announced the day after the inauguration that they had worked out a deal with First United Church in the Downtown Eastside, so that the church can open up as of Monday next week as an overnight shelter.

A hundred and fifty people will be able to sleep in the pews overnight, with the money for running that kind of operation to come from the city, St. Andrew's Wesley and the province ($10,000 each), along with an unknown amount from the Streetohome Foundation.

That project showed how enthusiastic people are to pitch in on immediate solutions.

But it also made warning signs flash for me because of how quickly it was pulled together. (The first meeting on the issue was Sunday night, the money was rounded up over the next day, and then it was announced.

First United minister Rick Matthews looked a bit dazed Tuesday at how quickly everything had come together -- and he still has to find the staff to manage an overnight shelter by Monday. They're not even sure yet whether they will be able to provide pillows and blankets. Details to come today or Friday, I guess.

New councillor Kerry Jang enthusiastically reported later Tuesday that the owner of a building on the 100-block East Hastings had also offered his building as a temporary shelter. And apparently other offers are flooding in.

The real test for this new council will be whether they craft solid solutions, even if they are short-term ones. It's clear that Vancouverites desperately want to see the city do something. But Gregor and his Vision team will need to make sure that they don't just slap things together to make it look like they're doing something/anything.

If projects are poorly put together and end up developing problems that sap people's goodwill and energy, we'll end up further behind than we were before.