Vancouver’s Homelessness Crisis 101

I explore the complex aspects of Vancouver's homelessness crisis, challenge myths, and provide food-for-thought

Photo: Rafal Gerszak / The Globe and Mail

PhotBy: Victoria Lopatka, Peak Associate

Last winter I was on the 95 B-Line heading through the Downtown Eastside (DTES) reviewing cue cards for an upcoming midterm. Upon entering the bus, soaked from the rain, I spotted a free seat, and headed towards it. Mere inches from the seat, I realized why it remained vacant: a homeless man was seated beside it. He was weighed down with what I imagined were all his earthly belongings – a plastic trash bag and a raggedy backpack – looking and smelling like he hadn’t showered in weeks. He twitched and fidgeted, muttering gibberish to himself. I hesitated, but then decided to sit down so I wouldn’t draw attention to myself or possibly hurt this man’s feelings. 

I pulled out my cue cards. As I was flipping through them, I reached a term I wasn’t completely familiar with and paused, wanting to remember the term before flipping the card over. I hadn’t noticed the man watching me until he spoke up — and correctly defined the term. I stared at him. He had already turned his body away from me and was staring straight ahead. I flipped the card: he was correct. I continued studying, feeling him watching me once again. Every time I hesitated; he would softly define the term. 

Finally, I turned to him: “You know a lot about Criminology, huh?” His eyes lit up and he almost bashfully explained that he had studied Criminology, too, but it must’ve been about ten years ago, or more. There was an unspoken “and now I’m homeless.”

Chapter One: Vancouver’s History with Homelessness

I turn back to my cue cards, flipping to the next one: why does Vancouver have a homelessness crisis? When did it begin?

I’m sure many Vancouverites have these questions, too. Vancouver began experiencing a homelessness crisis in the mid-1980s. Prior to the 1980s, the federal government invested generously in the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), which served to ensure there was adequate affordable housing in the city. However, a funding cut after the 1980s led to a decrease in CMHC capabilities: this decreased social programs, and an eventual increase in housing prices. Around this time, the federal government transferred responsibility of homelessness to the provincial governments. By 1999, there were around 600 people experiencing homelessness, with numbers increasing everyday as lower-income groups were no longer able to afford housing in Vancouver. By 2002, the number of people experiencing homelessness had nearly doubled: 1,121. By 2005, it nearly doubled again reaching 2,174. The city’s overall population had only grown by about 30,000 in that time.

That cue card returns to the deck, and I turn over a new prompt: who’s to blame for the current homelessness crisis? 

Well, it depends who you’re asking. Metro Vancouver mayors point the finger at the provincial government, specifically premier Christy Clark, saying the province isn’t supporting municipalities adequately. “We were very successful for three years in bringing the street homeless population down,” said Gregor Robertson, mayor of Vancouver from 2008-2018, “In 2011, things turned, and Christy Clark became the premier of BC There was no commitment to solving homelessness here in the province.”

Chapter Two: Just Build More Houses

Fast-forward to the 2018 annual homeless count, where 2,181 Vancouverites were identified as experiencing homelessness. In response to these statistics, the city built about 600 temporary modular homes. City Councillor Christine Boyle hoped that this would lead to a reduction in the 2019 homeless count. Did this happen? 

“Despite the housing of hundreds of people in modular housing over the past year, the number of homeless Vancouverites has increased yet again, hitting a record high, according to [ . . . ] this year’s count,” The Vancouver Sun reported. Despite these numbers, city officials stress that the effect of the new temporary modular houses should not be disregarded; BC Housing Minster Selina Robinson saying, “This year’s count shows a seven per cent decrease in street homelessness [homeless individuals living on the street, versus in shelters or other temporary housing] in the city — an indication that our strong actions and partnerships with local governments are starting to make a difference.” Others, like Councillor Jean Swanson, call it “horrendous”, seeing the numbers increase.

New card: So, why didn’t the numbers decrease? Simple math would suggest that housing hundreds of homeless individuals would lead to a decrease in the subsequent homeless count, but this did not occur. I would like to draw your attention to two points outlined in the Vancouver Homeless Count 2019 report: “44% of survey respondents had been homeless for less than one year” and “eighty percent (80%) of survey respondents reported already living in Vancouver when they became homeless.” If this is accurate, then building more housing is not the sole answer: we must also address underlying pathways into homelessness. This trend was also seen in the previous homeless count report. It has been suggested that the underlying causes of homelessness, such as high housing costs, job loss, and youths aging out of foster care, are causing Vancouverites to become homeless at a faster rate than they can be housed, causing a near-constant stream of newly homeless Vancouverites.

A few cards are easy to flip through: How many people in Vancouver identify as homeless today? The 2019 homeless count recorded 2,223 homeless individuals in Vancouver, BC.

Other cards are much harder to answer concretely: Who are they? What do they look like? Let’s go back to the guy on the bus . . . what do you imagine that he looks like? Does he fit your stereotypes of homeless people? What do you think about when we discuss “homelessness”? Do you see a person of colour, or someone of Aboriginal descent? Do you picture a drug user? A criminal? A sex worker? A schizophrenic? Someone with bipolar disorder?  Maybe you align with presumption of guilt: homeless people are lazy, unmotivated, have made bad life choices, do drugs, and are aggressively mentally ill. On the other hand, maybe you align more with Innocent until proven guilty: as with everyone else, our homeless neighbours are innocent until proven guilty. Guilty for what? What if they’re not guilty at all?  

Chapter Three: “Where Did THEY Come From?”

I can’t write an article on the homeless crisis in Vancouver and not touch on the concepts – and misconceptions – that inevitably get thrown into conversations on the topic: migration, climate, mental illness and substance abuse, and income. It’s easy to hear or read somewhere that homeless people migrate to Vancouver due to the mild climate here, and through repetition in conversation and other mechanics, this becomes a deeply-held and shared belief among Vancouverites – but is it true?

I flip over the upper-most cue card in the stack: do homeless people migrate to Vancouver? Well, it once again depends who you consult. Mayor of Victoria, Lisa Helps, and Kerry Jang, a Vancouver psychiatrist specializing in homelessness both dismiss the idea. “How do they afford to come?” Jang says. Others, though, say homeless people migrate to Vancouver and Victoria for good weather, better shelter, or to connect with friends and family. Dennis Palubeski, a homeless man who moved from Ontario to Victoria says, “Victoria is Mecca. If you are going to be homeless, this is it [ . . . ] you can’t go hungry here.” The majority (80%) of respondents in the recent homeless count said they had been living in Vancouver for more than a year, with 15% saying they had lived here all their lives. Only 14% of those surveyed had arrived in Vancouver under 6 months ago. When asked where they had lived previous to Vancouver, 16% had lived elsewhere in Metro Vancouver and 31% elsewhere in British Columbia. The majority (81%) had had a home of their own in Vancouver before becoming homeless. 

Though still debated, the very possibility of homeless migration raises an uncomfortable issue that cannot be ignored: if Vancouver focuses efforts on homelessness services and housing, will that, in turn, attract a brand-new tide of homeless people searching for help? This reportedly occurred in Medicine Hat: when the small community managed to house the majority of their homeless, new individuals experiencing homelessness came to Medicine Hat specifically because they knew they would quickly be given a place to stay.

The next card is related: True or false? – Vancouver’s mild climate draws homeless populations here. If those experiencing homeless are actually migrating, why would they come to Vancouver? The mild weather, many say. In reality, homelessness-oriented organizations in Vancouver report that many citizens experiencing homelessness are “scared of getting sick or dying” in the cold winter weather, with temperatures dipping to -10 Celsius. In response to a cold snap in January 2020, a City of Vancouver spokeswoman said, “This extremely cold weather facing Vancouver is especially dangerous for people sleeping outside, and we are urging everyone to come inside to the safety of the warming centres and extreme weather response shelters.” Whether or not homeless people are migrating to Vancouver, its climate is clearly less mild than many believe.

Chapter Four: Psychos, Junkies, and Tweakers

Fill-in-the-blank: ________ people living in the DTES suffer with mental illnesses and substance abuse issues
a) All
b) Most
c) A portion of
d) None of the

I shift my deck away from my man beside me, hoping he won’t see the prompt and get offended. Mental illness and substance abuse in the Downtown Eastside are other hot-debated topics for Vancouverites; people love to chime in about overdoses they’ve witnessed, needles they’ve nearly stepped on, and the screeching crackheads disrupting their commute to work. Do all, or most, of Vancouver’s homeless have mental health issues? Should we stop giving spare change to those experiencing homelessness because they’ll only use the money to get high? I choose to explore these prompts with, once again, help from the annual homeless count report. If you selected a) or b), above, you’re incorrect. The correct answer is c): 44% of respondents indicated that they had a mental health issue. When asked about substance use, “31% of survey respondents reported no addiction, 22% reported an addiction to one substance, and 45% reported an addiction to two or more substances… Just like in the general population, only a percentage of those who are experiencing homelessness deal with addictions,” Homeless Hub reports. Of those who reported addictions, the substances mentioned include nicotine, opioids, methamphetamine, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine, three of which are legal for adults and enjoy widespread use in the general population.

I flip over the mental health cards, and am prompted with: what happened to the patients at Riverview Hospital when it shut down? Riverview Hospital, a Canadian mental health facility, closed down in 2012. I remember reading an article years ago (so long ago that it was impossible to find and cite) that described the closing of the facility, and how unfortunate it was that most of the patients ended up in the Downtown Eastside. 

The article described a process of patients being processed out of the facility, passed on to other un-prepared facilities, being provided prescriptions, and released rapidly, where they ended up in the Downtown Eastside. I assumed this was true, and this became a well-held belief in my mind that I could throw into conversations to sound knowledgeable. Some still insist today that Riverview’s former patients are now residents of the Downtown Eastside, having been unable to thrive outside of the mental facility. Marina Morrow, an associate professor with SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, who conducted a small-scale study following some of Riverview’s patients after the facility closed, disagrees with this concept. “I don’t think any of the tracking studies show that has been true,” she says. “People have been very well cared for since they left. It’s a very systematic plan. All of them have been transferred to other care facilities where they have a very high level of care. None of them are being transferred directly to the community.” Victoria-based forensic psychiatrist Shabehram Lohrasbe expresses concern, though, saying: “We dump these people on the streets, but even if they’re provided housing, they’re still very vulnerable to predators particularly within the drug trade. So the constant battle is not only to keep them on their prescribed medications, but to keep them away from drugs.”

Chapter Five: Just Go Get a Job 

True or False: homeless people are lazy. 

False. In the recent homeless count, only 9% reported having no source of income. A third of the respondents indicated that they had multiple income sources at one time, including panhandling, vending, part-time or casual employment, binning/bottle-collection, etc. Does that sound lazy? In order to survive, those experiencing homelessness are constantly having to provide the necessities of life for themselves and many are already employed, possibly with multiple jobs that still fail to adequately provide for their needs. Others may be unable to get a job due to a lack of permanent address, transportation barriers, or mental health struggles. It is not as simple as “just go and get a job.”

Chapter Six: A Note on COVID-19 and Homelessness 

How can you self-quarantine when you have no home? How can you wash your hands when you don’t have reliable access to warm water? How can you practice social distancing when you sleep in a crowded shelter, two feet from another person? 

By mid-March, a CCAP release urged the government and public stakeholders to turn their attention to the homeless populations in Vancouver, who may be particularly vulnerable to the virus due to old age, underlying health conditions, and a lack of sanitizing and hygiene supplies. The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness recommends the opening of more emergency shelters to allow homeless Vancouverites the space to practice social distancing, in addition to providing shelter workers with adequate supplies, such as COVID-19 tests and protective equipment.

In acknowledgement of the heightened risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in the DTES, the federal government set aside ten million dollars to “reduce the impacts of coronavirus on Vancouver’s homeless population,” reported by CTV News on April 4, 2020.  “If somebody comes to our shelter with COVID-19 symptoms, agonizingly, at the moment we have nowhere to send them, nowhere to redirect them,” said Jeremy Hunka of Union Gospel Mission, a “Christ-centered” Canadian charity that seeks to provide relief to those experiencing homelessness, poverty, and addiction. “That’s not the ideal solution and we just need to get everything set up faster and we hope this $10 million makes a difference there.”

As April continued, concerns about the residents of the DTES rose as two COVID-19 cases were reported in Vancouver shelters and tests in the United States found asymptomatic outbreaks amongst American homeless populations. Global News reported on April 20 2020 that health workers in Boston had tested over 350 residents in a local homelessness shelter and were shocked that 140 tested positive, but were asymptomatic. These surprising results increase the urgency for more emergency housing to allow homeless Vancouverites to social distance and, if necessary, quarantine.

On April 23, 2020, the Government of BC announced that local hotels, empty due to travel restrictions, would be turned into temporary housing for homeless citizens living in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park, Topaz Park, and Victoria’s Pandora Avenue. Staff in these temporary housing locations will have experience assisting those with addictions and mental illness struggles. Shane Simpson, minister of social development and poverty reduction, noted that this move is necessary to promote physical distancing among homeless populations. 

At the time of writing this article, the most recent update has been published by the Times Colonist, saying “B.C. Housing has been transitioning about 15 to 20 people a day from the camps to 324 rooms at five hotels in the city. As of [May 3 2020], 90 people had been moved indoors,” — “the city” referenced in this quote being Victoria, BC. Thus far, there have been no updates on the progress of moving homeless citizens in Vancouver, BC. 

Chapter Seven: Humanizing the Homeless

Only one card remains in the stack: how can we solve Vancouver’s homelessness crisis?

Homeless Hub outlines ways homelessness can be addressed, including robust prevention strategies, emergency responses, housing/accommodation, and supports, such as rent supplements, employment training, health care, mental health and addiction assistance, and recreational and social activities. Metro Vancouver also has an official Homelessness Strategy, which outlines steps of prevention, emergency, intervention, and permanent responses, including a description of the pathways into homelessness, the types of homelessness, and the pathways out of homelessness. The Tyee has multiple articles outlining suggestions to end and help homelessness, including authorizing tent cities in lieu of criminalizing people experiencing homelessness, as well as appointing a Homelessness Czar, who would be responsible for uniting efforts between government and non-governmental organizations. It is important to note that preventing homelessness is easier than just reversing it once it has occurred.

Bonus card: What about for individuals, like you and me? I glance at the homeless man next to me on the bus. I challenge you — you, the person reading this right now — to begin assessing your own beliefs about those experiencing homelessness.  Where do they come from: statistics or stereotypes? If we don’t work to shift our beliefs now and see the homeless as the people they are — people like you and me  — the crisis will only grow.