“Good morning, my name’s DJ, I’m part of a team of volunteers going around to chat with people living outside. Do you want a cigarette?”
And that’s how it begins, the distressingly normalized task of volunteering to count homeless people in Metro Vancouver. Since 2002, cities across Metro Vancouver have been sending out volunteers every three years to enumerate and document a growing crisis. Since 2010, in the face of an avalanche of homelessness, Vancouver has conducted yearly counts.
Despite warnings from Metro-area mayors, few expected triple-digit increases in homelessness throughout Vancouver’s suburbs between 2014 and 2017. Delta saw an increase of 142 per cent; Langley, 124 per cent; and the Tri-Cities (Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody), an increase of 113 per cent.
As with anything, the devil is in the details and statistics can be manipulated to influence policy based on personal agendas rather than evidence. And so, let’s take a closer look at the preliminary findings.
142 per cent! That’s impossible!
The increase in Delta, for example, is striking: 142 per cent! Increases of varying amounts across the region are, however, relatively consistent (with only the North Shore showing a decrease in homeless people tallied during the 24 hours of the count).
In looking at this data, what we can say with certainty is that homelessness is not a “Vancouver problem,” nor are homeless people migrating en masse to the suburbs based on Vancouver’s continued high rates and years of data indicating that many people remain in their home communities.
The increase in Delta provides an interesting example of how bad housing policy and growing poverty may be driving up homelessness in suburban areas. It may also be a strong indicator that previous homeless counts have drastically underestimated homelessness in more rural and suburban communities.
No one with an ounce of sense disagrees these counts constitute a significant underrepresentation of homelessness, and some new initiatives, including a dedicated rural strategy and “connect events” (special service events in suburban areas designed to attract homeless people so they can be surveyed) in less urban areas may also be increasing capacity to find people who were previously excluded from the count.
Housing Justice for all.
On one hand, we know that homelessness is increasing. On the other hand, we are learning that homelessness has always existed in our suburbs; we are just starting to do a better job of assessing it. The next step is to ensure that those communities embrace the services needed to support the homeless people in their communities.
Myth: We built it and they came! Let’s stop bringing shelters into our communities!
In December 2016, 30 shelter beds, 30 transitional housing units and 30 emergency wet weather response mats opened in Coquitlam to serve the needs of homeless people in the Tri-Cities. And in 2017, the Tri-Cities saw a 113 per cent increase in their homeless count numbers.
In the wrong hands this data could devastate a city’s ability to open up shelter and housing for homeless people. For example, a public consultation in Maple Ridge in February 2017 saw hundreds of people come out, many of whom spoke out against shelter and housing for homeless people, some of them arguing that “if you build it, they will come,” there are “busloads of homeless people being sent here” and, bluntly, “to hell with the homeless.”
So, is that the case in the Tri-Cities? Not likely. The 90 beds/mats created to serve the Tri-Cities were established on the basis of previous homeless counts that found a minimum of between 48 and 94 homeless people living in those communities between 2008 and 2014.
Until 2017, all those counted had to be found in places other than a dedicated emergency shelter. It should come as no surprise that it is harder to locate homeless people when they have no shelter services to gather at and may be well hidden in order to avoid bylaw enforcement, which often targets homeless people for setting up survival shelters in communities across Metro Vancouver.
It is not a fair interpretation of the Tri-City numbers to say that the opening of the shelter caused homeless people to flock to that community. Rather, it is far more likely that more people who were already homeless in the Tri-Cities were counted because they were accessing necessary services, thus the stunning increase.
This is really important to understand. What we don’t see in these numbers are the housed community members who stand in the way of shelter and housing developments, usually on the basis of prejudice and a misunderstanding of the facts and evidence.
What we know from the numbers in the Tri-Cities is that there has been very high uptake on the shelter and transitional housing services now available, that the services available still do not meet the need in that community, and that homelessness is still on the rise—but perhaps not by 114 per cent.
At least more people are sheltered - This is not a solution.
Shelter is not housing. It is often getting a bed or a mat overnight only to be turned out each day. Many shelters also have stay limits, forcing people back to the streets after a week or a month if they haven’t yet been successful in finding housing.
Yes, sheltering people is better than not, but it is an expensive and inadequate Band-Aid solution that BC has relied upon for too long instead of investing in the social, affordable and supportive housing that people need.
Here are a few things to consider when looking at the percentage of people sheltered versus unsheltered:
- 256 people counted were using Extreme Weather Response mats that were open during the count. These are only available temporarily during particularly bad weather and have not been open during previous counts. So when governments say, “at least the number of unsheltered people is still decreasing,” that is only because additional mats were available on that one night, not because circumstances are improving. If the count were to properly compare the data over years (counting people in the EWR shelter spaces as "unsheltered," which they would have been in any other year), then the percentage of unsheltered homeless people actually increased to 36 per cent from 34 per cent in 2014.
- 58 per cent of Indigenous people counted were unsheltered. This is compared to 29 per cent overall. The findings are particularly startling in Vancouver, where 59 per cent of unsheltered homeless people counted identified as Indigenous, skewing the statistics overall. This is in the context of a 3 per cent overall increase in the overrepresentation of Indigenous people within Metro Vancouver’s homeless population to 34 per cent compared to the general population of Vancouver, which is approximately 2 per cent Indigenous.
- Every year the count is conducted while Winter Response Shelters and Temporary Cold Weather Shelters are open. These shelters are only available during winter months, usually November through March. This year additional shelter was open January to March. So when you see a proliferation of tents around Metro Vancouver each spring, this isn’t people "choosing" to live outside. Many of them simply lost access to anywhere else to go when 311 winter shelter beds are taken away in the spring.
Myth: Shelters just enable people.
Burnaby has long been known as a laggard in protecting their homeless community members, refusing outright to support emergency shelter services in the area. Does that refusal mean people will simply leave Burnaby? Will it “encourage” people to find housing? No.
What it will do is leave more people unsheltered and vulnerable to the potentially grave impacts of living on the streets, including a life expectancy that is cut almost in half, chronic and acute health conditions, and the risk of victimization and violence.
71 per cent of people counted in Burnaby were unsheltered—by far the highest percentage in the region. While the mayor of Burnaby uses homeless people as pawns in his political game, he is putting people’s lives at risk every single day by refusing to support emergency shelter services.
So what do we do now?
After you take a moment to digest these findings—both the crushing reality of the crisis on our streets and the need to take a critical eye to the statistics relied upon by our policy makers—it’s time to get about the task of voting and supporting our homeless neighbours.
Right now both major political parties are so far in the weeds on these issues that they would need directions to get anywhere near policy that will stem the tide of increasing homelessness, let alone decrease or end it.
You have the power to make housing and homelessness a key election issue, but you need to be engaged and you need to go to the polls.
When you hear opposition to services and shelter for homeless people in your community, be the voice of “yes.” Cities often face stiff opposition to establishing shelter services, and they need to hear from community members who support shelter and housing initiatives. Showing up works!
In January 2017, NPA members of Vancouver’s Park Board tried to end the use of community centres as warming centres during cold snaps. A community of supporters rallied on only a few hours notice, with hundreds of people writing and speaking to the Park Board in favour of the warming centres. This support made a difference in keeping those centres available and meant that approximately 100 people per night were able to access warm, safe space.
As for the homeless count, it will remain necessary for the foreseeable future. “Thanks so much for your time, I really appreciate it. Would you like some candy or another cigarette?” And with that I get up and walk slowly away, knowing that there is no end in sight. I’ve been sent out only to witness and document a human-made catastrophe, knowing that there is no cavalry coming to stop it.