Homeless advocates raise alarm: more people on Vancouver's streets
By Frank Stirk | Friday, July 20, 2012
Photo by Ed Yourdon
VANCOUVER, BC - "There's no cheap way out of this," says Jonathan Bird, executive director of City Gate Leadership Forum, a non-profit Christian organization that seeks the spiritual and social renewal of Metro Vancouver.
Bird was reacting to a newly released survey that found the number of people living on the streets of Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside had doubled in the past year.
"It all boils down to there's not enough supportive housing units being built, because it costs too darn much," Bird says. "People don't want to take the political hit that it will cost to build them."
Conducted in the spring, the annual homeless count found the number of homeless people overall had remained almost unchanged from last year, rising slightly from 1,581 to 1,602. But of those, the number of so-called 'street homeless' - those not in a temporary shelter- had jumped from 154 in 2011 to 306 currently.
City staff worry that if governments do not act quickly and provide the funding needed to keep open more shelters, especially during the winter, as well as pay for other projects, these numbers could rise to record levels by 2014.
Bird believes the poorest of the poor are being squeezed out of an already tight housing market by those who can afford to pay the higher rents being charged by private landlords. What is needed is more housing for everyone, regardless of income.
"Otherwise, people of modest income are going to out-compete people of low income," he says. "And that's what we're seeing in more and more numbers."
Yet the cost of ending the blight of homelessness does not end there. A separate survey by University of British Columbia professor of psychiatry Michael Krausz has found that 93 per cent of homeless people suffer from a current mental disorder and 83 per cent have a substance abuse disorder.
Even more alarming, 86 per cent reported having been abused as children - and that half had become homeless for the first time before turning 25. Many had been in foster care.
"Homelessness is not just not having a home. It is also a very dramatic health concern," says Krausz. "And to stabilize these people and support them, they need a safe place to stay, and support and reintegration efforts. Otherwise you won't get far."
Doing nothing now, he adds, will only cost governments more later.
"The homeless are in and out of emergency and acute care," Krausz says. "They are using the police or ambulances or the prison system or whatever, but in a very, very ineffective way."
Despite these serious issues, The Salvation Army believes that many homeless people are being helped to turn their lives around.
"We've seen a good number of people," says David Woodland, the social services secretary of The Salvation Army's B.C. Division, "move from shelters into the varied support services that they need and are available, and then move from some of those support services into stabilized transitional housing, and some even into longer-term housing."
Yet Wendy Dubois, pastor of local outreach at Tenth Church on the edge of the downtown core, has seen the number of people turning to them for help continue to grow.
"Three years ago, we were at about 120 to 140 for our Monday night dinners. Now we're at 160 to 180," she says. "Our Tuesday lunch program's generally about 120 to 140 people. But when that started about 12 years ago, there were only about 20 to 40 people coming. So it's really increased significantly."
But while their meal programs are well-funded and well-staffed with volunteers, Dubois says people still hesitate "to befriend those that are quite different than themselves."
"It's still very much an us-them kind of mentality," she says, "although we're getting more and more people willing to come and sit and just talk with them."
But there are also preventive measures Christians can take to protect people from becoming homeless.
"There's a limitless opportunity for churches," says Bird, "to reach out to vulnerable neighbours, and be that friendship network that lets people know they are valued. And you don't have to come downtown for that."