Mayor Gregor Robertson’s promise to end “street homelessness” by 2015 appears to be in jeopardy with data released April 23 showing Vancouver now has the largest homeless population in the city’s history.
A total of 1,798 people identified as homeless, with 538 living on the street, 1,136 in shelters and 124 of no fixed address, according to preliminary results of the Metro Vancouver Homeless Count conducted across the region March 12.
The total surpassed 1,715 homeless people recorded in 2010. Such a spike reverses a trend over the past three years that saw the homeless population decrease and hover around the 1,600 mark.
Troubling for Robertson is the 538 people found on the street this year, which is almost double the 273 counted by the City of Vancouver in 2013.
The number of people living on the street — or street homeless, as defined by the mayor — was at an all-time high at 811 when Robertson was elected in 2008. That population showed a steady decrease after the mayor took office and was attributed to the opening of temporary winter shelters, temporary housing and some subsidized housing buildings.
Robertson suggested last week the city was headed towards a “worst case scenario” because of delays in opening more temporary housing and B.C.-government funded housing, along with tenants forced out of single-room-occupancy hotels for renovations. The cancellation of the Mental Health Commission’s Chez Soi program for people with mental health issues, the closure of the Dunsmuir hotel (which served as temporary housing) and overflowing shelters were other reasons.
Robertson’s fear was Vancouver could see more than 1,000 people recorded this March as living on the street. That was the number city manager Penny Ballem presented to city council last week.
“The worst case scenario mapped out by Vancouver staff was actually worse than this [538 on the street],” Robertson said at a press conference Wednesday in Burnaby. “So we’re kind of halfway between status quo and that outcome. This is very frustrating news to see the street count that high.”
Asked whether he would meet his goal of ending street homelessness by 2015, Robertson said it was still possible “if there was a concerted effort and we see some additional investment from the B.C. government, the federal government — that’s where we need more help.” The mayor, however, acknowledged up to 600 units of housing — about 400 funded by the B.C. government — are planned to be open before the end of the year.
The spike in homelessness comes eight months before voters go to the polls and decide whether Robertson and his Vision Vancouver team should earn a third term in office.
Opposition NPA Coun. George Affleck reiterated a position he held from last week, saying the mayor’s promise to end street homelessness was “irresponsible” when considering the challenge.
“We wouldn’t promise to get to zero [street homeless],” said Affleck, when asked how the NPA would reduce homelessness in Vancouver. “And blaming the federal and provincial governments is not going to help the problem — it’s going to make it worse.”
He said the NPA would work with senior levels of government to get people off the street and favour housing be built around the region.
“Vancouver is a hot spot for this issue, no doubt. But does that mean we should build all the homes in Vancouver? I don’t think so.”
Affleck noted former NPA mayor Sam Sullivan’s goal during his 2005 to 2008 term was to reduce homelessness by 50% — a goal that was ridiculed by Vision Vancouver, he said. It was during Sullivan’s reign that the city also struck a deal with the provincial government to begin building subsidized housing sites on city property, he added.
The mayor issued a statement after the press conference through his Vision Vancouver party, saying "what we can’t have happen is let an NPA government roll back the progress. They’ve already been out in the media, calling our shelters and housing a waste of money. That we should let the market decide what housing to build, and turn our back on people when they need us most. The NPA's approach would be a big step backwards for Vancouver."
While the politics of the issue plays out, the facts are homelessness in Vancouver and the region continues to increase.
The results of the Metro Vancouver Homeless Count showed a total of 2,770 homeless people in Vancouver and the surrounding suburbs. Surrey was second to Vancouver with 403 homeless people followed by the North Shore (119) and New Westminster (104). Langley (92), Ridge-Meadows (84), Burnaby (58), the Tri-Cities (55) and Richmond (38) rounded out the top 10.
That’s an increase of 120 people region-wide from Metro Vancouver’s 2011 count. The number of people living on the street in the region was 957 this year, up from 758 in 2011.
Deb Bryant, chairperson of the Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness, suggested the homeless population could be larger considering the count is only done over 24 hours.
"What we know is the count numbers are a minimum number of people who are homeless on any given day in the Metro Vancouver region," Bryant said. "It's just simply not possible, of course, to count every person or to find every person. The number of people who are homeless on any one day is only a proportion of the people who experience homelessness over the course of a year."
New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright, who doubles as chairperson of Metro Vancouver's housing committee, did not make a similar promise to Robertson to end street homelessness in his municipality. And when asked whether such a goal was achievable in New Westminster, Wright said “we almost can’t do much more.”
“If there’s anyone that’s out there, we’re kind of on it right away,” he said, noting his municipality has “second-stage” housing for homeless people, three large food service centres and a dedicated police officer to liaise with the homeless.
Aboriginal people continue to represent one-third of the homeless population in the region, with 72% found in Vancouver and 12% in Surrey.
Patrick Stewart, chairperson of the aboriginal homelessness steering committee for Metro Vancouver, said the news for his community is again disconcerting.
“The results point to the definite need for more culturally appropriate affordable housing in Metro Vancouver, which is pretty frustrating because we’ve been saying that since 1993 when the federal government cut new construction for social housing,” said Stewart, who is an architect. “It’s pretty evident that housing isn’t a right in this country, despite the Band-Aid programs that continue to not address the real needs within the aboriginal community.”
Stewart noted there is only one temporary shelter in Vancouver, which is run by the Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society, and it continues to be full every night.
“People are being turned away,” he said, despite the City of Vancouver’s purchase of the former Ramada hotel on Hastings to provide interim housing for tenants moving out of the shelter.
A total of 410 homeless people under the age of 25 were counted in March, along with 371 seniors and 88 children under the age of 19 who were accompanied by their homeless parents.
Ashley Crossan of the Vancouver Foundation’s youth advisory group for homelessness said the statistics don’t properly reflect the number of young homeless people. Crossan said many people from her generation don’t want to admit they are homeless and noted several didn’t show up to agencies to be counted this year.
“Homeless youth are not the same as homeless adults,” she said. “They are much less visible. Homelessness for youth can take many forms — living in unsafe situations, couch surfing, staying temporarily with friends as well as being on the streets.”
After the press conference, the Courier spoke to Giles Clawson, a homeless man camped in a parking lot on Kathleen Avenue, near Kingsway — across from the building where the homeless numbers were released. Clawson, who believes he is 38, said he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident when he was 19 and suffered a brain injury.
Born and raised in Burnaby, Clawson said he’s been on the streets for 15 years and usually sleeps in Burnaby’s Central Park and uses the park’s washrooms. He said he panhandles for money and people are usually generous.
“What do I need? I need a home — I need it badly,” he said, adding that he believes he’s on a waiting list for housing. “Until then, I’m here.”