Mayor Kennedy Stewart says he expects the number of homeless people counted in Vancouver this week will show an increase over last year’s total of 2,223.
If that assessment holds true, then Vancouver will again see record-breaking homeless numbers for a fourth consecutive year at the 2,000-mark, erasing any sign of returning to levels of 2005 when 1,364 people were counted.
Stewart based his prediction on the seven people he met on the street Wednesday morning after he participated in the count for two hours. He joined a city staff person in making the rounds near the Vancouver Public Library’s main branch.
“If us, as a two-person team — out of the many teams that were out there — ran into seven people on our own, then I expect that we’re going to see higher numbers this year overall, which is very dispiriting for everybody,” the mayor said Thursday.
Stewart was among several hundred volunteers who participated in a count that ran simultaneously with a region-wide count. Final numbers aren’t expected to be made public until later this year.
The Courier asked Stewart in January to make a prediction about the count, but he wouldn’t say either way. Now that he has, he knows his critics will point fingers at him for not addressing the crisis.
“My approach since I was elected was to see what I could get out of the federal and provincial governments right away, and we’ve had some success with that,” he said, but noted the provincial government’s latest budget doesn’t provide significant money to build more housing for the homeless.
He said the federal government, meanwhile, has not provided much of the $40 billion promised to be spent across Canada to reduce chronic homelessness by 50 per cent in the country by 2027.
“I’ll just keep pounding on those doors,” the mayor said.
“But that’s why I think there’s some other moves that we’re going to have to make here at the city, and they’re going to be tough choices for us at council.”
Asked to elaborate on those moves, Stewart said he’s drafting a strategy aimed at reducing homelessness but won’t provide details until he speaks further to his advisors about his plan.
"I just want to make sure I have the best advice, but it's coming sooner rather than later," he said.
"You're going to see something from me in the next couple of months."
The provincial government’s housing ministry said in an email that it has opened 720 “new supportive homes” in Vancouver over the last two years.
The majority of those homes are temporary modular housing geared at homeless people and people at risk of homelessness. The city is set to open another modular building this month on Copley Street. It will have 58 units.
The provincial government also funds 925 permanent shelter spaces, 329 temporary shelter spaces and 145 shelter spaces in Vancouver that are opened during cold weather.
“We recognize that shelters are not a long-term solution and we know there is an immediate need for more supportive homes in Vancouver,” the provincial government said in the email.
“We will continue to work with the City of Vancouver to deliver long-term solutions for people.”
Stewart said five of the seven homeless people he met Wednesday agreed to answer a survey, which included questions about how long they’ve been homeless and whether they have an addiction.
Four men and one 26-year-old woman agreed to answer the survey. They were all in plain sight on the street and around B.C. Place Stadium. All were receiving welfare.
“They’re really telling you their whole life story,” the mayor said.
“It was just heartbreaking.”
A new question on the survey this year asked people whether they had experienced a brain injury. Four out of the five people the mayor spoke to said they had suffered a traumatic brain injury.
“One guy was a construction worker who was hit in the head that caused his injury, and after that his life just really fell apart,” he said, noting the man developed a drug addiction.
Stewart said while counting the number of homeless people is important, it’s also crucial to gather information about their condition to help governments and others identify the right solution.
He provided the example of previous counts showing an over-representation of Indigenous homeless people. So building more housing that caters to Indigenous people becomes a priority, he said.
“It sounds so clinical, but it does allow for proper planning,” the mayor said.
Added Stewart: “We just need more housing — that’s it.”