The City of Vancouver has re-opened three crucial community facilities that had reduced services months ago in response to COVID-19.
The Carnegie and Evelyne Saller Community Centres have reopened in the Downtown Eastside, the city said Wednesday in a news release, along with the Gathering Place Community Centre in Downtown Vancouver. All are now providing drop-in space and increased washroom access between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. every day.
The facilities, which mainly serve the city’s vulnerable and homeless population, have been inspected by health officials and approved for reopening. Drop-in space will be limited because of capacity restrictions.
“Reopening these community centres is a very positive step as they provide much-needed services and social connections for many of our residents,” said Sandra Singh, the City’s General Manager of Arts, Culture and Community Services.
“While the centres will look and feel different than prior to COVID-19, we are looking forward to welcoming community members back in modified ways and offering services such as access to wifi and mobile programming,” said Singh.
This is the first phase of reopening, while additional programs and services will be available in the coming months.
Timings for meals, laundry and showers can be found here.
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 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.”
Gary Humchitt at Oppenheimer park in Vancouver, BC Wednesday, September 25, 2019. Nearly a hundred tents dot the landscape at the park which has pitted various levels of local government and agencies against each other as to how best handle the homeless encampment. Jason Payne / PNG
Calls will be made to Vancouver city council on Tuesday to create a new shelter, or rent a hotel, to house about 60 people who remain at the Oppenheimer Park tent city.
The first of two motions to council will be presented by COPE councillor and longtime anti-poverty advocate Jean Swanson.
The Oppenheimer Park camp in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside began in Oct. 2018 with a few tents and grew to 200 tents in early Aug. 2019.
On Aug. 19, Vancouver park board manager Malcolm Bromley ordered all tents/structures be removed within two days. At the same time, B.C. Housing made available to campers 123 B.C. Housing units, 11 City of Vancouver units and stated there were 60 shelter spaces available (some tent city residents have told Postmedia News that they would rather be in a tent than at a shelter.) A Supreme Court of B.C. injunction is required to remove campers by force, and as there was no injunction the remaining campers and their tents stayed in the park.
Last Thursday, during a presentation to Vancouver parks board by City of Vancouver deputy city manager Paul Mochrie, he stated that 130 campers accepted the housing offers, over half of whom were First Nations, and 34 per cent women.
Mochrie said that there were currently 120 tents on the site — between Powell Street to the north and East Cordova in the south, with Dunlevy Avenue on the west and Jackson Avenue to the east — with about 55 people still staying in the park who were in contact with city outreach workers. He said 40 were male, 14 female and one trans and noted “a small number of people have declined to identify themselves or are not interested in Outreach’s assistance.”
In her motion, Swanson calls for city staff and agencies to meet with residents “about an accessible alternative site that ensures health and safety, access to services and supports, and is acceptable and appropriate for people currently living in Oppenheimer Park. Swanson states the site needs a community kitchen, electricity, storage, toilets with running water and there be a warming tent in Oppenheimer Park.
She also calls for an emergency homelessness task force to be formed to look at buying or leasing one of more hotels for Oppenheimer Park residents.
It starts by stating “Vancouver is experiencing unprecedented housing and mental health and addiction issues,” and that “there are a significant number of persons living on the city’s streets, or out of their cars, due to the shortage of appropriately affordable housing who simply require access to shower and washroom facilities to support them on their path to permanent housing or employment.”
At last week’s park board meeting, commissioners heard that the number of people sleeping on the streets in Vancouver had risen almost 300 per cent since 2011 — to 614 in 2019.
In the motion, Wiebe and Dominato ask that Mayor Kennedy Stewart — who in early September unsuccessfully asked that parks board hand over the Oppenheimer Park file to the city — send a letter to parks board asking that the “current impasse” at the park be “resolved swiftly” for all concerned. They also want council to develop a decampment plan with the goal of “restoring the park for broad public use.”
The pair are also calling for council to direct staff to apply for provincial government funding “for the establishment of a low-barrier shelter in the city that can suitably address the specific needs of those currently encamped in Oppenheimer Park.”
The majority of councillors and mayor need to vote in favour of a motion to be passed, and often the motion is amended during the council meeting.
Vancouver’s council is comprised of an independent mayor, five from the Non-Partisan Association, three from the Green party and one from COPE.
The Vancouver park board has the power to apply for an injunction to end the tent city, but are not prepared to do that at this point. In 2014 the park board did use an injunction to end another homeless camp in Oppenheimer Park.
Dave M., a homeless man who didn’t want his last name used, said his American Eskimo dog Cutiepie was stolen on Granville Street. He’s holding a poster May 29 that he hoped would help him find his dog. Mike Bell / PNG
Cutiepie the dog has been reunited with her owner.
Late last month the fluffy, white American Eskimo pooch had vanished from the makeshift home she shares with her owner Dave M. out front of the Hudson’s Bay store on Granville Street in Downtown Vancouver.
Dave, who declined to give his full last name, said he had left his beloved dog with his belongings while he used the washroom May 24 and when he returned, she was gone.
Shortly after Postmedia News first reported the story, Dave started getting tips from passersby. In one instance, an international exchange student came up to Dave and showed him photographs they had snapped of a dog on a SkyTrain car around the time of her disappearance. It was Cutiepie, Dave said with conviction. From those photos he knew she was with someone.
Eventually, the tips that came in bore fruit, and last week the dog was returned to Dave in perfect health. She was freshly bathed and had supped on kibble and canned tuna and salmon before she went home.
“I’m very blessed to have her back,” Dave said Sunday. “I got my dog back and that’s all I ever asked for.”
Dave said he gave Cutiepie some beef jerky when she came home. She was very hungry, but probably because she was stressed, he said.
Dave said people walking by are happy to see her back. “Everybody knows Cutiepie,” he said.
What had happened, according to an account from the person who had Cutiepie, was they believed the dog had been abandoned when they saw her without any owner present. Cutiepie hadn’t been leashed at the time. Several days after taking the dog home they learned that she was, in fact, well-missed and wanted back at home very badly.
On Sunday, when a Postmedia photographer met with Dave, Cutiepie was on a leash and bore a big doggie grin.
The B.C. SPCA is among the groups that provide services to help those living on the streets care for their pets. The society offers a range of necessary goods and services, including veterinary care, through its Charlie’s pet food-bank initiative. It’s a volunteer-run program and it relies on donations.
The most-needed donations are unopened wet or dry pet food, cat litter and hay for small pets, according to the SPCA. Those goods can be dropped off at the society’s Vancouver branch. Cash donations can be given at any branch and donors can earmark their gifts for Charlie’s pet food bank if they so wish.
Anyone concerned about the well-being of any animal can call the SPCA at 1-855-622-7722.
Dave M., a homeless man who didn’t want his last name used, says his Alaskan Eskimo dog Cutiepie was stolen on Granville Street. He’s holding a poster he is hoping will help him find his dog. Mike Bell / PNG
The bond between humans and animals is so powerful that the mental and physical health of a pet owner can be lifted just by having their animal in their life, according to the SPCA.
Despite that, there is still some stigma toward pet ownership by people who are living on the streets, spokeswoman for the B.C. SPCA, Lorie Chortyk, said Wednesday.
The animal welfare organization is among the groups that work to support relationships between homeless people — many of whom have been through tough times in their lives — and their pets.
“Often for these individuals this is the first time they’ve ever experienced unconditional love,” Chortyk said.
“I think anyone who’s had a pet understands how powerful that bond is. But if you haven’t experienced that unconditional love, that bond is even stronger. And those individuals protect that animal and protect that bond even more.”
Chortyk’s comments came a few days after a white American Eskimo dog named Cutiepie was stolen from a man living on the sidewalk out front of the Hudson’s Bay department store on Granville Street in Downtown Vancouver.
Dave M, who declined to give his full last name, said he had left Cutiepie with his belongings while he used the washroom around 2:30 p.m. Friday. When he returned, the dog was gone. A frantic search of the surrounding streets was fruitless.
Cutiepie has been in Dave’s life for about six years. He presumed the then-eight-year-old dog had been abandoned before she arrived at his house in Mission, he said.
Asked if he knew who might have taken his dog, Dave said: “I’ve heard a couple people say (to the dog) ‘we’re going to give you a good home’, like, maybe four walls and a roof. … but I spend 24 hours a day with my dog. I take care of her. She’s my baby.”
Dave, who has lived on the street for the past eight months, described Cutiepie as looking like a polar bear, with white hair, short little legs, a small head and a fat body. She’s a calm dog who loved being petted and she would spend hours in his lap being groomed, he said.
Dave asked anyone who has seen Cutiepie to alert the SPCA or the VPD, with whom he said he has filed a police report.
The SPCA has a program to help people who live on the streets care for their pets, and in Chortyk’s experience, people in that situation tend to be “so dedicated” to that cause.
“Certainly, we’ve met a lot of people who will go without food themselves in order to make sure that their pets are well taken care of,” she said.
Through its Charlie’s pet food bank initiative, the SPCA offers things like nail trims, training tips, veterinary care, surgeries and referrals, as well as food, toys, carriers and leashes. The program is open to donations.
If anyone is concerned about the well-being of any animal they can contact the SPCA at 1-855-622-7722, and the organization can send out a staff member to assess the situation. If needed, they can either take the animal into care or try to help the owner, Chortyk said.
Studies and surveys around the world have repeatedly shown the importance pets can have in the lives of street-involved people, according to a 2014 research review written by Emma Woolley in her capacity as a research assistant with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.
Council earlier this month approved a motion directing city and park board staff to work together to provide 24-hour washroom access, storage facilities and a temporary warming station in or near Oppenheimer Park. The Downtown Eastside park has had, by some estimates, between 80 and 100 homeless people bedding down in tents each night in recent months, including through last month’s cold and snowy weather.
The council motion was introduced by COPE Coun. Jean Swanson, who says that in her four decades of anti-poverty work in the Downtown Eastside, she has never seen as many campers living in the park in snowy conditions as this year.
“For heaven’s sake, we have all those people living there, and they have no place to pee at night,” Swanson said Monday. “That is a public health nightmare.”
The city council motion, approved March 14, followed a similar motion approved on March 11 by the Vancouver park board, directing park board and city staff to work together to provide supports in Oppenheimer Park.
Those additional supports were not yet in place as of Monday, the City of Vancouver wrote in an emailed statement Monday, and “city staff are still determining the timeline and next steps for implementing the direction from the council motion.”
The original language of Swanson’s motion, which she tried to introduce last month, directed city staff to work with B.C. Housing “to rent a hotel or motel to house the Oppenheimer Park patrons.” But other councillors amended the motion this month to replace the words “rent a hotel or motel” with “continue to explore ways to fund temporary and/or permanent accommodations, with appropriate support services.”
Over the years, groups of varying sizes have camped in Oppenheimer Park, including a tent city that grew to as many as 200 tents in the fall of 2014. But the number of campers there this winter was thought to be a record high for the time of year, said Fiona York, a coordinator with the Carnegie Community Action Project, which supported Swanson’s motion.
York said Monday she had counted 42 tents in the park over this past weekend, many of which could be shared by two or three campers.
Last week, the Coroners Service released a report showing that in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics were available, the province had 175 deaths of homeless people, a 140 per cent increase over 2015. The city of Vancouver had a 250 per cent increase in deaths of homeless people in that period.
In 2016, 53 per cent of deaths of homeless people resulted from unintentional drug and/or alcohol poisoning, an increase over previous years. B.C.’s chief health officer declared a public health emergency in April 2016 over the surging number of drug overdoses, mostly linked to fentanyl.
Since 2017, Vancouver’s modular housing program has provided homes for 606 people who had been facing homelessness, using funding from the provincial government.
Many activists, including Swanson, have said the modular housing is a welcome addition, but the need far outstrips the supply.
The most recent Metro Vancouver homeless count found 3,605 people homeless in the region, up 30 per cent from the previous count in 2014. The City of Vancouver’s own count last year found 2,181 homeless residents in the city proper.
A Maple Ridge tent city has reopened, but on strict terms dictated by the city’s mayor Mike Morden.
The Anita Place homeless camp was established off Lougheed Highway at the corner of St. Anne Avenue and 223rd Street in May, 2017, and has been home to up to 200 people.
Late last month, firefighters entered the site, using a Supreme Court of B.C. order that allowed them to check on fire safety. They found multiple safety issues at the site, culminating in the arrest of six people who were blocking firefighters from accessing a wooden structure. The site was evacuated on March 2.
John Newton, 28, is seen behind police tape in Maple Ridge, B.C., on Saturday, March 2, 2019. Newton says he was the last resident to leave the “Anita Place” homeless camp in Maple Ridge, B.C., when police and firefighters enforced an evacuation order Saturday and cordoned off the area.
Amy Smart /
THE CANADIAN PRESS
Morden said firefighters and bylaw officers had done an “extraordinary job making this site safe for camp occupants and the surrounding neighbourhood.”
He said a plan was now in place to allow occupants to return to the site.
However, there were several conditions, the first being all residents have to “verified” by the city. The perimeter of the site has also been secured and there will be 24-hour security on site and no one gets in unless they are verified occupants, or legal aids or B.C. Housing staff.
Morden said any “new arrivals” would be barred from the site, there would be regular inspections and no propane, gasoline, paints cans or accelerants would be allowed.
He said the city’s goal was to have all the verified residents transferred to B.C. Housing provided accommodation. As people got new homes and left the camp they would not be replaced by newly verified residents.
Maple Ridge city officials with local fire and RCMP moved in to dismantle Anitas Place homeless camp in Maple Ridge, BC Saturday, March 2, 2019. Concerns over the use of propane cooking stoves and heaters in tents prompted the action.
Jason Payne /
He added that B.C. Housing was in the process of restoring power to the washroom and shower facility and installing the heating system for the warming tent.
The Pivot Legal Society, which is representing tent city occupants, wrote on Twitter that the city’s verification process was flawed. They claimed the city had no legal basis to refuse non-verified people access to the site.
The Fraser Health Authority says it is investigating after Chilliwack Mayor Ken Popove raised concerns about a 76-year-old woman who was discharged from Surrey Memorial Hospital and sent by taxi to the Chilliwack Salvation Army shelter, despite mobility and incontinence issues.
On Thursday, the mayor requested a meeting with Fraser Health CEO Dr. Victoria Lee to discuss “why vulnerable people are being sent to Chilliwack homeless shelters from another community.”
He cited the case of an elderly woman who had no family in Chilliwack, but arrived at the local shelter from the Surrey hospital in early February. Shelter staff were not prepared to care for her medical needs, which included severe incontinence.
“Constantly cleaning up fecal matter … is a serious concern for both staff and shelter clients,” said Popove in a letter to Lee.
Fraser Health spokesman Dixon Tam said Fraser Health makes “every effort” to find homeless patients a place to go when they are clinically stable and ready to leave the hospital, but “finding suitable housing is a challenge across our region.”
Tam said: “We are committed to continue to work closely with B.C. Housing and our municipal partners to develop more options. At the same time, we need to be careful not to use hospital beds as an alternative to stable housing.”
Abbotsford homeless advocate Jesse Wegenast said he wasn’t surprised to read the Chilliwack mayor’s account in the newspaper, “but only because it’s such a common practice.”
Wegenast’s organization, The 5 and 2 Ministries, opened a winter homeless shelter in Abbotsford on Nov. 1. The next day, he received a call from a Vancouver General Hospital administrator asking if he had space for an 81-year-old patient.
Wegenast said he often says no to accepting patients because the shelter is not open 24 hours and people must leave during the day. He’s had requests to take people with severe mobility issues, as well as those who need help with toileting or washing.
“The people who work at shelters are often very compassionate, and if the hospital says, ‘Well, we’re not keeping them,’ they feel obligated to help,” said Wegenast.
The pastor said he’s rarely seen people in shelters receive home care or followup care, and it’s also difficult for them to get prescriptions filled.
Wegenast helped a low-income senior on Friday who recently had half of his foot amputated. The man lives in an apartment and was receiving home care to help with dressing changes, but he’d been unable to get antibiotics for five days since being released from hospital.
“When you have people exiting acute care at the hospital and there’s no one to follow that up, it’s bad for that person’s health, and it’s also bad for public health in general,” he said.
Unlike Wegenast, Warren Macintyre was surprised to read about the Chilliwack woman’s situation because it confirmed that the experience he’d had with Fraser Health was not uncommon.
“I really had no idea this kind of thing was going on,” he said.
Three weeks ago, a close family member was admitted to Surrey Memorial after suffering from alcohol withdrawal, said Macintyre. He was placed on life support in the intensive care unit for about 10 days. When he was stable, he planned to enter a treatment program in Abbotsford, but there weren’t any beds available until March 14.
“We were told the plan was to keep him in hospital until then, but I got a call Wednesday telling me he’d been discharged,” said Macintyre.
Surrey Memorial had sent his relative to the treatment centre, where staff repeated they had no space, so he was returned to the hospital. The man, who had been staying at the Maple Ridge Salvation Army before his hospital admission, took a cab to a friend’s house.
His family is hoping he’ll be able to stay sober until he can get into treatment March 14.
“I told the hospital, if he goes back on the booze, he’ll be right back here,” said Macintyre.
Finance Minister Carole James arrives to deliver the budget speech as she waves to people in the gallery at the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, February 19, 2018. CHAD HIPOLITO / THE CANADIAN PRESS
The B.C. NDP government’s second budget focused on tax breaks and benefits for people with children, students and businesses, and investments in clean energy and climate initiatives. Here’s a brief summary of how British Columbians will be affected.
The budget didn’t make any large strides toward $10-a-day child care beyond continuing funding for the government’s 2018 child care plan into 2021/2022 and increasing it by $9 million a year. The bigger news was the introduction of a B.C. Child Opportunity Benefit to replace the early childhood tax benefit, which currently provides families with up to $660 a year per child under the age of six.
The new benefit, which begins in October 2020, will provide families with one child up to $1,600 a year, with two children up to $2,600 a year and with three children up to $3,400 a year. Instead of ending at six years of age, the benefit will be paid until the child is 18.
Good news for British Columbians with student loans — no more interest payments. As of Tuesday, all B.C. student loans will stop accumulating interest, saving someone with $11,700 in provincial student loans $2,300 over the 10-year repayment period. This will cost the government $318 million.
The public education system will get a boost, with $2.7 billion set aside over three years to maintain, replace, renovate or expand facilities. There will also be $550 million invested to hire new teachers and special education assistants, and improve classrooms.
Community organizations will be provided with funding to operate rent banks to provide short-term loans with little or no interest to low-income tenants who can’t pay their rent because of a financial crisis. It will cost $10 million and be funded through the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction.
The implementation of a B.C.-wide rent bank system for low-income people was one of 23 recommendations delivered late last year from the Rental Housing Task Force struck by the B.C. government.
The climate action tax credit will be increased in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Starting July 1, the maximum credit will go up by 14 per centfor adults and children, meaning low- and middle-income families of four will receive up to $400 for this year.
More than $107 million in operating funding will provide incentives for battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (up to $6,000), incentives for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, incentives for home charging stations, as well as other programs.
Pharmacare program will be expanded with an additional $42 million to cover more drugs, including those for diabetes, asthma and hypertension. An additional $30 million will be invested in tackling the drug overdose crisis, bringing the total investment since 2017 to $608 million. Mental health programs focused on prevention and early intervention for children, youth and young adults will be funded to the tune of $74 million.
As promised previously, Medical Services Plan premiums will be fully eliminated on Jan. 1, 2020, saving families up to $1,800 per year.
Income and disability assistance rates will be increased by a $50 a month, a total increase of $150 a month (or $1,800 a year) since the 2017 budget update. Before 2017, the rates had not been increased for a decade. This will cost an extra $44 million over three years.
A homelessness plan will invest $76 million in land acquisition and services to build 200 more modular homes, bringing the total to 2,200 units.
As she bounces nine-month-old Delilah on her knee, Amber Hawse pauses reflectively before answering a question about what she thinks she and her baby will be doing in five years.
Hawse, 20, hopes by then to have graduated from college and to have a job as a special-needs support worker. Delilah will be in kindergarten. And they will live together in their own place with enough money for food, basic expenses and peace of mind.
Her goals may seem modest, but the reality is that 20 per cent of children in B.C. live in poverty and their families struggle to provide the necessities of life, especially in Metro Vancouver with its sky-high cost of living.
Hawse knows this well, as a foster child who lurched from home to home, some of them abusive. At age 16, she was living on her own in an apartment run by a social service agency, learning to budget her meagre government payments while attending high school.
The well-spoken, thoughtful young woman hopes Delilah will not be trapped in a similar cycle. She wants to provide her daughter with financial and emotional stability — which starts with them remaining together.
“I grew up with no dad and no mom, so I don’t want to let her grow up with (being) in care and getting her abused. I want her to know she is always loved,” Hawse said, fighting back tears.
Poverty and other challenges facing youth, particularly in Metro Vancouver’s inner cities, were the focus of a recent brainstorming session during which dozens of service agencies and community members came together to discuss the root causes and possible solutions to these often multi-generational crises.
“People can easily become immune to seeing homeless people on the streets, but the poverty that children face is often hidden from us,” said Jennifer Johnstone, president of Central City Foundation, which organized the Hope Dialogue Series session. “And that makes (the depth of) child poverty a surprise to people sometimes.”
The Downtown Eastside has become the focal point, with many drawn there by its plethora of low-rent buildings and free food services. But poverty exists in many other pockets of Metro Vancouver, and affects the children of struggling parents as well as children without parents.
172,550 poor kids in B.C.
The statistics, say Central City, are stark:
• One in five of all B.C. children — 172,550 kids — lives in poverty, and that jumps to one in three for off-reserve Indigenous children.
• Nearly half of recent child immigrants are impoverished.
• Half of children in poverty are raised by single parents, mostly by mothers.
• Youth aging out of foster care are 200 times more likely to become homeless before the age of 25.
And research shows that disadvantaged children can be delayed mentally and physically due to a lack of nutrition, are more likely to struggle in school and end up unemployed, and are more prone to suffer from addictions and mental illness.
The trend is improving, though, as a quarter of all B.C. youth were impoverished a decade ago, compared to 20 per cent now, according to First Call’s annual Child Poverty Report Card. B.C.’s child poverty rate has been higher than the Canadian average for at least two decades, although that gap is narrowing.
Some of B.C.’s recent improvements can be credited to the new Child Tax Benefit introduced by Ottawa in 2016, and also promising are recent commitments by provincial and federal governments to adopt poverty-reduction plans, increase affordable housing, boost the minimum wage and introduce affordable daycare.
But there is more work to do to try to overcome the systemic marginalization that has led to this poverty — such as colonialism and residential schools that have brought a disproportionate number of Indigenous people into the Downtown Eastside, Johnstone said.
The October brainstorming session, which included groups such as the Urban Native Youth Association and the Aboriginal Mother Centre, was just the beginning of a very important conversation, she added.
“When we come together and see possibilities, that is the hope for change,” Johnstone said. “The children are the stewards of our future.”
Schools are more than education
Schools increasingly provide more than education to impoverished youth, especially in inner cities. But during long school breaks, at-risk children can be left without enough food, fun activities or emotional support to keep them safe during the day while their parents are working.
To bridge this gap, a unique organization called KidSafe runs full-day camps during Christmas holidays, March break and the summer at six east Vancouver schools, so 450 vulnerable children have a safe place to go each day for three healthy meals, fun activities and continued access to important services.
“The (camps) provide continuity for things like nutrition, healthy adult relationships, just somebody having eyes on a child,” said KidSafe executive director Quincey Kirschner, who attended the Hope Dialogue session.
“The demand is ever-increasing, and it is so awful to not have enough resources to be able to provide service to all the kids and families who need it.”
Poverty is one of the reasons some children are referred by teachers and others to KidSafe, but there are other factors as well, such as emotional vulnerability, she added.
For six years, Krista Ericson has relied on the three seasonal camps to help with her four children, who are in Grades 1 through 6 at Grandview/¿uuqinak’uuh Elementary in east Vancouver. The camps provide much-needed respite for the single mother, who fostered and then adopted the four Indigenous siblings who have a range of diagnoses that include fetal alcohol syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“The support during the (school) breaks is life-saving to me,” said Ericson, who added it is difficult to keep the active, high-needs children at home all day. “To think of trying to find out-of-school care for four children, I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t afford full-time camps in the summer.”
She does not work outside the home, mainly because her days are consumed with hospital appointments and other commitments for the children.
Ericson lives in subsidized housing, shops for food that is on sale and in bulk, and is grateful for a myriad of programs — ranging from Backpack Buddies, which provides food to families for the weekends, to charity hampers and donated gifts at Christmas — that help her make ends meet.
When her children see other people with cellphones or trendy clothing, Ericson has her oft-repeated line: “I tell my kids, ‘That’s their family, and we do it differently in our family.’” She also uses the opportunity to teach her children that, although they live a modest life, they are better off than other students who don’t have enough food to eat or a safe place to sleep at night.
One of her top priorities is to include a lot of Indigenous culture in their home lives.
Indigenous culture creates ‘doorway into wellness’
After the brainstorming session in October, Central City compiled a summary of what they heard from the 100 people in attendance, and found that programs with cultural components, such as connections with elders and Indigenous languages, have been successful because they create “a doorway into wellness and community building.”
Other initiatives that are making a positive difference, the attendees said, were those that connect youth with relatives and meaningful people in their lives, as well as programs in which non-profits and service agencies work together to provide more comprehensive support to children.
The Central City summary also determined what isn’t working: Governments too often fund programs that treat problems once they start, rather than preventing them; a lack of affordable housing can lead to poverty and families losing their children; and there isn’t enough transition planning for youth aging out of care, who experience disproportionately high levels of mental illness, substance use and unemployment.
Aunt Leah’s Place, a New Westminster charity, has been helping children who age out of care for three decades, but 10 years ago it added a new element: soliciting financial support from foundations, corporations, governments and others to obtain specialized housing.
“That was done based on trends we saw around more and more young people who are aging out becoming homeless,” said president and CEO Sarah Stewart. “What we didn’t plan for is the opioid crisis — that’s been a double whammy for these young people. … They are dealing with daily grief connected to people they know who have died.”
Aunt Leah’s provided services to 345 youth last year — 41 foster children under age 19, 208 who had aged out, and 96 of their babies and children.
“The reality for youth aging out of foster care today is a lot of hardship,” said Stewart, who also attended the Hope Dialogue session.
There has been positive change in the last few years, such as free tuition and financial support for foster children to attend post-secondary schools. The provincial government has also expanded a program that will fund more life-skills training for these youth.
But, Stewart said, more subsidized housing is needed, along with better co-ordination between government agencies — such as education, health and child welfare — to look out for this population.
‘Just do what parents do’
The key to supporting youth coming out of care is simple, she argues — just do what parents do.
“Aunt Leah’s tries to replicate what families are doing for their kids,” Stewart said. “Parents are providing tuition, transportation, food, housing well into their 20s, so that is what we are doing. And that is what government should be doing.”
Hawse, though, was cast adrift. After being asked to leave her last foster home, the then-16-year-old moved into an apartment run by Aunt Leah’s, where teenage foster children live on their own but have access to support and training programs.
“For the first couple of nights that I was by myself, I cried because I wasn’t used to being in a house alone,” she said. “It’s very lonely.”
She received government funding of $70 a week for groceries, and learned to buy food on sale and collect grocery store points to get items for free. She also worked part-time while completing high school — a remarkable accomplishment, as less than half of foster children in B.C. graduate from Grade 12.
When she turned 19, Hawse was newly pregnant but had to leave her Aunt Leah’s apartment funded specifically for foster kids. She moved into emergency housing for several months before Aunt Leah’s could offer her a room in a building for new mothers.
She is getting by, for now, able to buy food, diapers and other necessities with the employment insurance and federal child tax she is collecting while off work with her baby. She hopes to return to her job at a local daycare, and to attend college next year to become a community and classroom support worker.
“I’ve been through a lot,” Hawse says. “But there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Some solutions for the future
Central City’s Johnstone says there are reasons to be optimistic. For example, her organization, which is a major sponsor of Aunt Leah’s, is also backing a unique new youth initiative in Surrey that will have a school program and government social workers located in the same place as a sort of one-stop shop for vulnerable kids.
And there are other organizations, such as Vancouver Native Health, launching innovative programs in the Downtown Eastside designed to keep families together, she said.
The summary from the brainstorming session came up with some solutions to work toward, although nearly everyone interviewed for this story admits there is no obvious quick fix to the deep-rooted problem of child poverty.
The goals for the agencies include expanding programs to support the family as a whole, not just the child alone; enlisting graduates of youth programs to return as mentors; and creating more hubs where multiple services can be offered in one place to at-risk families.
At Family Services of Greater Vancouver, many clients in the family preservation program are parents trying to keep their kids after the children’s ministry documented some type of child protection concern. Staff help them with a myriad of things, ranging from housing, daycare and community resources, to help with trauma, domestic violence or addictions.
“For many of our families, poverty is an issue and that becomes a barrier for everything. They don’t have money for housing, food or your basic needs,” said Susan Walker, a family preservation manager, adding that stress affects everything from going to school to having a healthy family relationship. “Poverty stops people from moving forward.”
The agency, which also attended the Hope Dialogue session, has joined with others to advocate for major changes. Karen Dickenson Smith, director of specialized family supports, said these include embedding support workers into more “creative” types of housing, larger subsidized homes to allow extended families to live together, better compensation for foster parents, and higher wages in the social services sector to reduce turnover and ensure continuity of care for youth.
“System change takes time. We’ve seen some really encouraging developments, but we are a ways off and there is a lot of work to do,” said Dickenson Smith.
Added her colleague, Walker: “Poverty is not going to end overnight, but if you have subsidized housing and people are given the opportunity to get the work they need to do in life to get a job, that can allow children stability.”