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More Homeless than Athletes in 2010

Can Vancouver's Olympic pride be saved? First in a series.

Monte Paulsen 28 May

Monte Paulsen is a contributing editor at The Tyee. He welcomes your e-mail.

This series about the roots of homelessness and possible solutions in B.C. is funded in part by the Tides Canada Foundation.

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Vancouver homeless youth. Photo by Elaine Briere.

"When the world arrives in Vancouver in 2010, what kind of city will they find?" asked Mayor Sam Sullivan in his inaugural address.

They will find a city in which there are more homeless Canadians shuffling in the shadow of BC Place than Olympic athletes parading inside the Vancouver stadium.

That's the conclusion of a three-month investigation by The Tyee, which found that unless Mayor Sullivan and B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell radically reshape their response to North America's fastest-growing homelessness crisis, the number of Greater Vancouver homeless will easily exceed the 5,000 athletes and officials expected to participate in the 2010 games.

And it could get worse. If affordable housing continues to erode throughout the region at the rate it has during Vancouver's recent SRO buying binge, there could be twice that many. Should that happen, there would be one homeless person for each of the 10,000 members of the international press corps expected to encamp at the new $800 million Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre.

During the coming days, The Tyee will publish articles that explain:

  1. How the sudden loss of Vancouver's residential hotels accelerated a crisis that had been growing since Gordon Campbell's BC Liberals slashed welfare benefits
  2. Why Housing Minister Rich Coleman's bold expenditure of more than $100 million provincial tax dollars will deliver very little additional housing
  3. How local and provincial taxpayers could wind up spending more money taking care of the homeless than building Olympic venues
  4. Why Mayor Sullivan's elaborate plan to privatize social housing is an untimely gambit that appears to have distracted his administration during a pivotal time
  5. Where neighbourhood NIMBY groups have stalled the construction of sorely needed supportive housing
  6. What governments, business, non-profits and Olympic organizers must do this year in order for Canada to avoid a lasting legacy of shame in the wake of the 2010 Winter Games

Today: A look at the numbers.

Over 2,200 homeless now

On March 15, 2005, a team of social workers counted 2,174 homeless people in Greater Vancouver.

Starting at 5:30 in the morning, they scoured shelters, drop-in centres, parks, and other locations frequented by the homeless to produce The 2005 Greater Vancouver Homeless Count. The total number of homeless doubled since the previous count in 2002, from 1,121 to 2,174. More than half (1,291) were found within the City of Vancouver, followed by Surrey (371) and New Westminster (92). (A map of their findings is here.)

"All counts underestimate homelessness, because of the difficulty in finding those who do not use services or spend time where homeless people congregate," wrote the report's authors. Also, the one-day count did not consider people sleeping in detox facilities, recovery houses, hospitals or sofa surfers -- even though many of those residents have no fixed address. "Thus, the Homeless Count did not enumerate every homeless person in the region on March 15, 2005, and is an undercount."

But while the report does not claim to offer a complete count of homelessness, it does provide an accurate survey of the region's homeless population. Among its findings:

More homeless people were found on streets than in shelters; the number of street homeless rose by 235 per cent since 2002.

People of Aboriginal identity accounted for 30 per cent of the region's homeless population, while making up only two per cent of the total population.

When asked why they were homeless, 44 per cent cited lack of income, 25 per cent named addiction or other health conditions, and 22 per cent blamed the high cost of housing in Greater Vancouver.

Less than half of those counted had a steady income source. The rest survived on income from panhandling, bottle collecting, casual employment, or illegal activities.

Nearly three quarters reported chronic health conditions, such as addiction, mental illness or physical disability. Addiction was the most common; almost half of the homeless who responded to this question reported problems with addiction.

When asked which municipality they considered their last permanent home, 75 per cent reported somewhere in Greater Vancouver. Another 8 per cent reported their last permanent home was elsewhere in B.C., 15 per cent reported a location elsewhere in Canada, and one per cent reported a location outside Canada.

The next Greater Vancouver count will be conducted in 2008.

'Unprecedented demand'

Local counts have found higher numbers of homeless.

Judy Graves coordinates the Vancouver Housing Centre's award-winning tenant assistance program. She's worked in the Downtown Eastside since 1979, and has spent much of the last decade trolling the city's streets, parks and alleys for people in need of housing.

Graves conducted her own count in 2005. Using the same methodology biologists use to count wildlife, she found up to twice the number of Vancouver street homeless enumerated in the one-day count. Her next report is due late this fall.

"There are a couple of neighbourhoods in the City of Vancouver where I believe we're seeing a decrease in the number who live outside overnight," Graves said. "In other neighbourhoods, especially outside of the urban core, we're seeing quite an increase in the number of homeless on the street."

The undercount may be even more dramatic in smaller communities. Like most suburban municipalities, Port Coquitlam has no service center at which homeless people would congregate. Not surprisingly, the 2003 regional count was able to locate a mere 10 homeless people in PoCo, and the 2005 count found only 35.

Then, last summer, a new service organization began working in the area. Within months, the group had identified 177 homeless in PoCo.

"I think the situation is comparable in Burnaby and Surrey," said Diane Thorne, an MLA who represents the Coquitlam-Maillardville riding and also serves as housing critic for the New Democratic Party. She estimated that the actual homeless population in Greater Vancouver's suburban communities is "10 times" the 2005 count.

Thorne noted that B.C. does not conduct a province-wide homeless count. The best available statistic is that between October 2005 and April 2006 a record 28,922 people were turned away from B.C. shelters.

"There is an unprecedented demand for shelter services, not only in Vancouver but across the province," Thorne said. "There have been enormous increases in long-term and repeat users."

Disappearing rooms

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the Vancouver homeless epidemic is deeper than the 2005 numbers suggests.

"Rooming houses and hotels are falling like flies," said Jean Swanson, a veteran Downtown Eastside activist now with the Carnegie Community Action Project.

Twenty-two residential hotels were sold in 2006, with a combined total of 1,178 rooms. By adding the number of rooms from which tenants were evicted to the number from which tenants were forced out by rising rates, Swanson counts 600 low-income rooms lost during the same year.

"If we lose 600 more this year, another 600 in 2008, and 600 again in 2009, that's 2,400 units of low-income housing likely to vanish before the Olympics," Swanson figured.

Likewise, intake workers at social housing centres report much longer waiting lists.

"It's just depressing," said Mark Townsend, who directs the Portland Hotel Society. "You feel like Solomon cutting up the baby, yeah? Shall you take this guy who's a problem tenant and no one will have him, or that one who's in a wheelchair and stuck somewhere?"

"We have just flat run out of empty rooms in Vancouver," Graves agreed. "We're at zero vacancy rate in those little rooms that were the last housing refuge for people. Anybody who's in the street now is going to have a precious hard time finding a place to go."

Homeless shelters are overflowing, despite the addition of 181 new shelter beds since 2000. The Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, a daytime drop-in facility, was pressed into service as an emergency shelter last November -- and an average of 50 women continue to sleep there every night.

And outreach workers are reporting more rough sleepers. The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, which operates nightly street patrols, is not only seeing more addicts on the streets, but is losing its own members to homelessness as well. Whereas only one-tenth of its members were without shelter as recently as 2002, now one-quarter of Vandu members are homeless.

"It's more dire, for sure," Townsend said. "Much more dire."

More homeless than athletes

After more than a dozen interviews with these and other housing experts, The Tyee has concluded that unless the city and province begin construction of additional supportive housing this year, there will be an estimated 5,600 homeless people living in Greater Vancouver by 2010.

There are two components of this projection:

  1. The Vancouver count will triple to 3,800. In the fall of 2006, Pivot Legal Society forecast that Vancouver homelessness will triple by 2010. No credible rebuttal to that forecast has emerged. And after weighing the number of new units BC Housing currently plans to open in the next few years against the accelerating loss of existing SRO rooms, The Tyee concluded that the zero vacancy rate will remain and Vancouver's most vulnerable residents will continue to be displaced.
  2. The regional count will roughly double to 2,000. It appears likely that the 2005 snapshot undercounted suburban homelessness by a greater margin than it did Vancouver. Also, as part of anti-drug efforts, some suburban municipalities continue to raze drug houses, bulldozing affordable housing in the bargain.

Swanson, Thorne and a few others regard The Tyee's projection as too low.

"If the attack on the rooming houses continues, I think we'll see much more than that in Vancouver," Swanson said.

"I expect regional homelessness to triple, at a minimum," MLA Thorne predicted. "I hope I'm wrong about that."

Graves, Townsend and others thought the number was accurate, or a bit high. Graves offered perspective.

"As recently as 15 years ago, there was no street homelessness in Vancouver. We did have shelters. We did have the odd coot," Graves said. She believes that Vancouver could vanquish homelessness again -- within a few short years -- if political leaders made it a priority.

"The causes of homelessness are complex," Graves said. "But the solution is kindergarten simple: Build supportive housing."

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