If someone asked you to deal with the homelessness problem in British Columbia, said Pivot Legal Society's David Eby, the first thing you would probably do is try to find out how many people you need to help.
"It's a really important statistic," he said. You can begin to figure out how much housing is needed, or what policies may help. "If you know how many homeless people you have, you know what you need for services." But despite numerous indicators the problem is growing, the province has failed to take even that basic step, said Eby.
And when professional researchers release reports that find B.C.'s response to the problem wanting, Housing Minister Rich Coleman has charged the reports were based on old data and don't take all that the province has done into account. Those reports include last week's Wellesley Institute National Housing Report Card and the Centre for Applied Research on Mental Health and Addiction's yet-to-be-officially-released paper for the Health Ministry on Housing and Support for Adults with Severe Addictions and/or Mental Illness in British Columbia.
The Wellesley report found British Columbians spend the least per person subsidizing housing of any province or territory in Canada. The CARMHA report estimated the number of mentally ill and/or severely addicted homeless people in the province at somewhere between 8,000 and 15,500, which is up to three times Coleman's estimate of 4,500 to 5,500. And the CARMHA estimate does not include people on the streets who do not have a mental illness or severe addiction.
"When qualified and capable people . . . come up with numbers based on a methodolgy that's transparent and accountable, [Coleman] denies that," said NDP homelessness critic David Chudnovsky. "If he thinks the information being provided is out of date, let him provide that information. He's the guy we pay to deal with the problem of homelessness."
In the absence of provincial leadership, communities are doing their own counts. Vancouver is scheduled to make one on March 10 and 11 (and is seeking volunteers through the Social Planning And Research Council), and community organizers in the Fraser Valley are planning their first homeless count in over four years, timing it to coincide with Vancouver's.
A Feb. 5, 2008, letter from the Mennonite Central Committee of B.C. to the Fraser Valley Regional District's executive committee said their count will, "Inform all levels of government and community based policy makers about the extent of the phenomenon and about the need for both provincial and federal investment in social housing in our communities." An FVRD official said the count is a first step towards gaining access to federal housing funding.
"It's very important," said Judy Graves, co-ordinator of the Tenant Assistance Program for the City of Vancouver. "It creates a baseline for how many units are needed even to begin to address the problem."
It makes sense to go about it in an organized way, Graves said. "You have to make some logical decisions. It's Grade 5 arithmetic." If 500 people move to Vancouver, and developers tear down 200 affordable housing units, she said, "You're going to end up with 700 people living outside. It doesn't matter which people they are, you're still short of housing units."
The CARMHA report estimated there are between 8,000 and 15,500 people with severe addictions or mental illness in the province who are homeless. Many more are at risk of becoming homeless, they added. They recommended immediately building or creating supported housing for 11,750, as a beginning.
BC Housing's target, in contrast, is 1,462 new units of supported housing for homeless people to be added by 2009-2010. The agency estimates there are 4,500 to 5,500 homeless people in the province, based on the communities that have done official homeless counts.
"Numbers give you inventory, but numbers don't matter, people matter," said Victoria Mayor Alan Lowe. "Instead of expending energy trying to debate numbers, whether it's a 1000 or 1,500, I know we have an issue. All you have to do is walk down the street to know we have a problem."
Or as University of Victoria social work professor and former Victoria mayor David Turner once said, why not go count people in their mansions in wealthy neighbourhoods instead and ask them what services they don't need?
Counts do have their problems, Vancouver's Graves allowed. Essentially they are "wildlife" counts where volunteers count as many people as they can, make sure they don't count anyone twice, but realize they won't find everyone. "We know we're undercounting. It's absolutely impossible to find all the homeless people. They're not at home."
Pivot Legal's Eby said counts are always going to be inaccurate, but if you do them the same way over several years you can at least tell whether the problem is getting better or worse.
Coleman appears uninterested in measuring the problem, Eby said. "He has no idea how many homeless people are in the province. His numbers are all over the place." It would be easy for the province to ask the service providers it works with for the numbers of people they serve and the numbers they turn away. "It wouldn't be hard to do," he said, but he could see why Coleman might not want to. "It comes with a political cost."
It's easy to imagine a scenario where the government gets a number, does nothing, then a year later gets another number and it's worse. If the government is not serious about working on the problem, Eby said, it isn't surprising they don't want to know how many people are homeless. "That's kind of an indicator of whether they're serious about solving the problem."
Having the number would help the province lobby the federal government for more help, he added. "They can't make a case to the federal government if they don't have that number."
The housing problem is not one of poverty, but of prosperity, Graves added. If you look at the communities in B.C. with the largest homelessness problems, they are also the ones where the economies are booming. "Everywhere there's homelessness there's also prosperity. Homelessness is a shadow of prosperity."
With vacancy rates in Victoria and Vancouver around one percent, she said, landowners can be very picky about whom they'll rent to. Land costs are going up and nobody is building rentals. The Olympics will make it worse. All levels of government have to work together on the problem, she added, and when the federal election is called, people have to work to get the issue on the agendas of the major parties.
"I think it's important. It's not just theory. These are people's lives here," said the NDP's Chudnovsky. "He should know what he's talking about because he's got responsibility for public policy that deals with the problem. . . . This minister appears not to know the simplest and most straightforward information necessary to solve the problem."
With the legislature returning Feb. 12, Chudnovsky said he will have lots of questions for Minister Coleman. "Minister Coleman is going to have to be accountable one of these days."
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