Final numbers from the 2019 Vancouver homeless count were released this week and advocates say they again prove the urgent need for more social housing and welfare rates high enough to cover basic rent in the city.
The figures didn’t change much from a preliminary report released in June. Volunteers counted 2,223 homeless people in the city, up two per cent from 2,181 last year. It was the highest number since 2005, when the count was first done.
Surveys revealed that 23 per cent were women and girls, one per cent identified as non-binary, and seven per cent were under 25 years of age.
Most were sick and most lost their homes in Vancouver. Sixty per cent were experiencing two or more health problems, up from 54 per cent in 2018. Eighty-one per cent were already living in the city when they became homeless.
Celine Mauboules, the city’s director of homelessness services, said she was particularly troubled to learn that the homeless population is aging. Twenty-three per cent of respondents were 55 years or older, up from 21 per cent last year.
Shelter providers meet seniors living on small incomes and pensions, and unable to keep up with rising rents, Mauboules said. With vacancy rates near zero, upon losing their housing, they are unable to find affordable units elsewhere and turn to the street. Some lose their housing during long hospital stays, she added.
“They just don’t have any other options,” Mauboules said. “We hear these stories from seniors who are falling through the cracks of our systems of care, and are really being priced out of the housing market based on their limited income.”
Jeremy Hunka, spokesman for Union Gospel Mission, said the rising number of homeless seniors was a top concern for his non-profit, too.
“We know that homeless seniors face even more challenges to exiting homelessness than others, including health and mobility concerns that can keep them stuck, along with fixed incomes and less ability to work, which also prevents exiting homelessness,” Hunka said.
“Senior guests are also much more vulnerable to extreme cold and being taken advantage of, mistreated, or even robbed when they are alone outside, so this steady increase is definitely concerning.”
Coun. Jean Swanson, a longtime poverty fighter elected in 2018, said many of the figures in the counts have been consistent over the years, and government should be acting on what it has long known.
“It’s so frustrating to be always counting and not building housing,” she said.
“I disagree with the premise that it’s so complex. I think we do need to do the counts but it’s almost as if the purpose of them is to say that the problem is these people have mental health issues or they have addictions, when the problem is that they don’t have housing.”
Swanson wants the provincial government to build more modular housing and raise income-assistance rates to be commensurate with the cost of living in the city.
“Those things have to be changed, we can’t let up on them,” she said.
Income and disability assistance rates rose $150 in the past three years, but only after more than a decade with no increase at all, Swanson lamented. A $50 increase last budget put the rate for a single employable person at $760 a month, less than 50 per cent of the poverty line, according to the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition.
In the past two years, just over 600 units of temporary modular housing, a relatively fast-to-erect and inexpensive kind of prefabricated building, has been built in Vancouver, mostly funded by the province.
Next spring, a 58-unit modular building will open at Vanness Avenue and Copley Street, and the city is working with the province for more permanent modular housing.
Mauboules agreed with Swanson that building more social housing and raising income-assistance rates are key to reducing homelessness.
Meantime, with the temperature dropping, an additional 300 low-barrier shelter beds have been opened in the city. Extreme-weather response beds add another 160 sleeping spaces and warming centres provide a place for people to come inside from the cold for some food.
Mauboules urges people seeking shelter to call 211 or visit vancouver.ca/homelessness.
Mauboules said there are some people who won’t want to use shelters and who say they are fine sleeping in parks or on the street. Outreach workers are working to build relationships with them over time, she said.
“I think it’s a matter of building trust with that person and identifying what the options are,” she said.
“Maybe they had a bad experience at a shelter so they don’t like shelters. But maybe with a different shelter or operator, they might have a different experience … or in terms of housing. People need choice.”