Vancouver count puts a face to city’s homeless population

Courier joins city councillor in search for people living on the streets, in vehicles

A tarp-covered shopping cart. A beat-up bike resting on its side. A man nestled in a green sleeping bag.

Picture that scene.

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Now step back to see it framed by an open-air picnic shelter at the edge of a park. Imagine winds strong enough to drive heavy rain into the encampment.

This is what 6:20 a.m. looks like from a soaked concrete slab at Trillium Park, where the man in the sleeping bag has just told two visitors that being homeless is driving him crazy.

Those were his exact words.

He expressed that to city councillor Andrea Reimer and Rena Kendall-Craden, the city's director of communications, who were dressed in rain jackets and carrying a clipboard to record vital information about the man's well-being and how he ended up on the street.

It's information that will be logged as part of the city's annual homeless count, a 500-volunteer effort conducted Wednesday and Thursday that included city councillors, the mayor and city staff.

"He was the average guy you find on the street — he moved here, lived there, worked here, worked there, lost his job," said Reimer as she continued along National Avenue in her search for homeless people.

Out of respect for the man's privacy, Reimer didn't divulge further details but noted he wasn’t counted last year. The man declined to speak to the Courier and remained in his sleeping bag as the stormy weather persisted.

He would be one of nine homeless people Reimer and Kendall-Craden counted and collected information from over more than two hours. Their geographic area of focus ran from behind the Ivanhoe Hotel on Main Street, through Trillium Park and up and down the Terminal Avenue corridor.

They searched fields, community gardens, walked along railroad tracks, side streets and scoured loading bays of commercial grocery warehouses and other industry.

It's an area familiar to Reimer, who has travelled the same route in previous counts. She also has some expertise, or at least some inside knowledge, of what it’s like to be homeless: As a teenager, she hitchhiked across the country, panhandled, couch-surfed in friends' apartments, slept in Stanley Park, dumpster dived and did drugs.

Memories of that part of her life came rushing back last year after she learned 199 young people under the age of 24 were recorded in the March 2015 count.

“That was the most startled I’ve been in doing the count,” she said.

A year later, her sense is this year's count won't see much of a change in the size of the homeless population, despite the opening of two buildings in the Downtown Eastside for low-income and formerly homeless people.

"Without any serious policy changes from last year from the province or federal government, I would expect to see a similar outcome," she said of last year's count, which recorded 488 people on the street and 1,258 in some form of shelter.

Falling through the cracks

Some of the people Reimer and Kendall-Craden spoke to Thursday morning slept in vans and recreational vehicles, including a young couple from Alberta and a working man worried his boss would discover he lived in a camper.

They were recorded as "unsheltered" or "street" homeless.

"This is the front lines for people still trying to keep it together," Reimer said. "They've still got a car and they're going to try and make that work, but your ability to find work gets harder and harder the more you're living like this. It gets to be a pretty desperate story."

Then there were those people on overloaded bikes and pushing carts who likely already packed up their belongings from their sleeping spots and were getting on with their day.

They weren't counted as homeless.

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Ava was living on the streets until she recently found a room at a single-room-occupancy hotel in the Downtown Eastside. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Neither was Ava, who lived on the streets until two months ago. She and her boyfriend found a room at a single-room-occupancy hotel on Main Street. She said she doesn't feel safe there, has been a victim of theft and is being harassed by the manager.

Reimer and Kendall-Craden found Ava outside a strip of warehouses near Main and Terminal. She talked about how she missed her young daughter (who is in the custody of her ex-boyfriend), her struggles with mental health and addictions issues (she went through detox at the Insite supervised injection site) and the long wait to move in to a B.C. housing building.

"I kind of always fall through the cracks," she said, sharing an anecdote about how addiction has kept her out of a permanent home. "If I had stable housing, it would be a step in the right direction and I might get to see my daughter again."

Ava, who said she used to be in the hospitality industry, spent Wednesday night outside collecting empty bottles. She looked exhausted and in poor health, a pair of sunglasses covering her sunken eyes.

As Reimer parted, she told Ava she hoped things would get better.

"It most definitely can't get worse," she replied.

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Angus Lemure has lived in a Vancouver shelter since January. He used to live outside on the banks of a river in Port Coquitlam. Photo Dan Toulgoet

In the same neighbourhood, 54-year-old Angus Lemure was just leaving a shelter that he and his girlfriend moved into in January. Four months prior, he lived along the banks of a river in Port Coquitlam.

He said he didn't mind being outside and it allowed him to tend to his 13 cats, which lived in a large crate he built. But then, he said, authorities came along and seized his animals.

"After that, I said I had to move, I couldn't stay there," said Lemure, noting his girlfriend's daughter told him about the shelter in Vancouver.

He said he is on a disability pension and does odd jobs in hotels. He's looked at basement suites for rent but he can't afford them. He said the shelter and soup kitchens keep him fed.

"I just want a place to live and get off the streets, and get my cats back," he said, before walking off to catch the Skytrain to New Westminster, where he planned to spend the day.

More than numbers

Observing the count Thursday was Abi Bond, the city's director of housing policy and projects, who accompanied the Courier throughout the morning.

She emphasized the count is not just about the numbers but collecting as much information possible about a homeless person's situation. The information helps find people homes, develop housing policy, determine health needs, connect people with income assistance — all of it evidence to strengthen the city's case when lobbying senior levels of government for housing money.

"The numbers make the headlines but if we're really trying to solve the issue, then we're interested in the reasons why people are becoming homeless and what's keeping them homeless," Bond said as she followed Reimer and Kendall-Craden through a community garden adjacent to Strathcona Park.

Last year's count identified a variety of reasons for people becoming homeless, including a loss in single-room-occupancy hotel rooms, untreated mental health and addictions issues, low welfare rates, prisons and hospitals discharging people to the street and shelters, youth aging out of foster care, rising rents and a low rental vacancy rate.

The overall homeless population in Vancouver has remained fairly steady over the past six years, but reached its peak in 2014 with 1,803 people counted without a home. That's even with the addition of 13 social housing buildings set up to get tenants access to health care, counseling and other services.

More recently, the city and the provincial government leased several former hotels for temporary housing. More shelters were opened during the winter months.

But that investment has leveled off since the March 2015 count, with only the 147-unit Budzey building at 220 Princess St. opening to provide permanent housing for formerly homeless people.

A 96-unit building at 250 Powell St., which once served as a remand centre, also opened but 42 units are for tenants earning between $26,000 and $40,000 per year.

Taylor Manor, which opened last year at Boundary and Adanac to cater to people strictly with mental health issues, added 43 more tenants since last year's count.

Another five units were occupied in a social housing building at Fraser and Broadway. By the city's count, the total number of new shelter beds and permanent housing units added since last year's count is in the 400 range.

Provincial investment

Shayne Ramsay, the CEO of B.C. Housing, said when calculating the province's investment to get people off the streets, the number of rent supplements should be included in the equation.

Since October 2014, he said, a total of 700 supplements were provided to low-income people in Vancouver to help subsidize rents in private buildings. About 60 were given out since the 2015 homeless count.

"It provides an effective means to get folks housed," said Ramsay in an interview from a coffee shop in the Downtown Eastside, a few days before this year's homeless count. "But it needs to be part of an overall system, too. We're not saying you don't do new builds and acquisitions and rehabs and fixing up hotels. But you can round it out with significant rent supplements."

Ramsay said two more social housing projects are under construction in the Downtown Eastside — at 41 East Hastings and 292 East Hastings — and will open in about 18 months. That will mean another 370 units added to low-income housing stock.

Also, the Stanley-New Fountain hotel in Gastown will get a complete renovation later this year. That will see the creation of 80 units at the $375 shelter rate, which is "replacing 100 crappy old SRO rooms with self-contained suites,” Ramsay said.

Six single-room-occupancy hotels under renovation will open by the end of the summer, providing 376 rooms. Though Ramsay acknowledged the rooms are replacing existing rooms, he pointed out three "swing spaces" were leased to provide temporary housing for hotel tenants displaced by renovations.

Those three spaces — the Colonial in Gastown (141 rooms), the Flint on Powell Street (102 rooms) and the Vancouver Chinese Mennonite Church on Pender Street (32 rooms) — will remain open.

During the interview, Ramsay pored over a paper list of B.C. Housing's investments, eventually getting to one he described as significant: Premier Christy Clark's announcement in February in which she committed $355 million over five years to construct and renovate more than 2,000 units of affordable housing in B.C.

It remains unclear how much of that money will be spent in Vancouver and what exactly it will be spent on. Even so, Ramsay said that money could be — and will likely be — used as leverage to get the Trudeau government to contribute more money to build more units.

"The bottom line is, the first government out of the gate with the money is the province," Ramsay said. "That sets us up well for conversations with the federal government."

The premier's announcement came on the heels of Mayor Gregor Robertson's pitch to the federal government to provide $500 million towards building up to 3,500 units of new housing on 20 city properties worth $250 million.

Robertson made it clear he wants the provincial government to contribute to the proposal. Ramsay would only say B.C. Housing is in discussions with the city.

Movement on any deal won't come until the Trudeau government announces its budget March 22. Both the city and province are interested to hear how the prime minister's commitment to spend $20 billion on social infrastructure will benefit Vancouver and the region.

In the meantime, Ramsay said the province's anti-homelessness investment in Vancouver over the years has been substantial. The government, he said, has also built social housing and opened shelters in other cities in the region.

"I often think where would we be without those investments," he said. "We'd be like Seattle, which just declared a state of emergency. Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles have much more dire homelessness issues. No other jurisdiction in Canada has continued to make the kind of investment that Vancouver has, and that the province has. And so I think we have been tackling it."

No promises

A year ago at this time, Mayor Gregor Robertson had to admit to reporters he didn't reach his goal of ending so-called "street homelessness" by 2015.

His critics were quick to pounce.

On Thursday, he was back on the streets counting homeless people in downtown and along Granville Street. He held another news conference after his shift but made no promises this time.

Neither did Reimer after she returned with a clipboard full of names and information to Strathcona Community Centre, which served as headquarters for volunteers participating in the count in the neighbourhood.

"For decades, including the one I lived primarily on the streets, nobody would even talk about this publicly because ending homelessness was impossible — that's what everybody said. But when you hear opposing politicians say it's impossible, they're absolving themselves from it. That's what they're really trying to tell you is that they don't want to take responsibility for it."

She continued: "Of course it's possible. There's lots of jurisdictions in the world where you see federal, provincial and city governments line up and you do not see homelessness."

For now though, the counts continue.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *

A final note: Last year's count revealed that even with the opening of 615 new and temporary housing units in 2014-2015, which housed 458 homeless people, a total of 488 people remained on the street. Results from this year's homeless count will not be released for a couple of months.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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