The number of people sleeping on the street in Vancouver this year almost doubled over last year for a total of 306, according to the city’s homeless count conducted in March.
While that population increased by 152, which is a relatively low number compared to an additional 1,296 recorded to be living in a shelter or temporary housing, news of the increase was unsettling for Mayor Gregor Robertson.
“It’s very frustrating to see the street homelessness increase to this degree,” Robertson said at city council Tuesday.
When Robertson became mayor in 2008, he promised to end so-called street homelessness by 2015. That goal appeared to be reachable last year, when the city’s homeless count recorded 154 people on the street compared to 421 in 2010.
The mayor attributed this year’s increase to the lack of provincial government-funded low-barrier shelters last winter, the dearth of affordable housing and inadequate treatment for people with mental illness.
“So the problem remains very intractable and difficult to solve in the near term,” he said.
The mayor commented after hearing a presentation by city staff at council Tuesday on the count and reviewing a report on the health of the homeless by Dr. Michael Krausz from the University of B.C.
The number of homeless people in Vancouver—in shelters and on the street—has increased steadily in the past decade. A total of 628 homeless people were recorded in 2002 and reached a high of 1,715 in 2010. That dropped to 1,581 last year and this year’s overall homeless population is 1,602.
Homelessness is escalating despite temporary shelters opening up in 2008, the renovation of more than 20 single-room occupancy hotels and the construction of new social housing buildings.
But Vision Coun. Andrea Reimer noted the provincial government’s changes to welfare rates as another factor in why people are homeless.
“It is the most horrendous kind of downloading,” she said of the government’s changes that make it difficult for some people to qualify for income assistance. “It didn’t save a single dollar. In fact, it’s ending up costing all governments—and that’s each taxpayer—significantly more to take people off welfare and turn them into homeless people that go from costing thousands of dollars a year to tens of thousands of dollars a year.”
Findings of the homeless count, which is conducted by volunteers who visit shelters, parks and drop-in centres, found the number of homeless women increased from 377 in 2010 to 416 this year.
Though two per cent of the city’s population is aboriginal, this year’s count found 32 per cent of the homeless identified as belonging to a First Nation.
The majority of homeless people counted this year were located in downtown, the Downtown Eastside and Mount Pleasant. Homeless were also recorded in pockets of Kitsilano.
Vision Coun. Kerry Jang said he was still concerned the social housing buildings being built on 14 city-owned properties had not hit the promised 60 per cent mark for tenants who were homeless.
“I’m absolutely astonished and horrified to see that despite all this clear public messaging, we only have 38 per cent of chronically street homeless people actually in the [buildings],” he said, noting the issue was raised with the provincial government in November. “It seems that it hasn’t gotten any better ever since.”
Krausz’s report found 85 per cent of homeless people studied in his survey reported moderate to severe emotional, physical or sexual abuse in their childhood.
Ninety three per cent of those studied have a current mental disorder and 83 per cent have a substance abuse problem. More than 60 per cent had a head injury and 60 per cent were at risk of suicide.
“Support and better care in the community is really key,” Krausz told council. “Homelessness is not a chosen lifestyle.”