Keir Macdonald, CEO of Phoenix Drug and Alcohol Recovery Education Society, with the “first of its kind” Adult Residential Substance Use and Supportive Recovery Facility Homelessness Count. It was done around the time of the Metro Vancouver Homeless Count (March 3 to 4, 2020) to complement the count. (Photo: Amy Reid)

Keir Macdonald, CEO of Phoenix Drug and Alcohol Recovery Education Society, with the “first of its kind” Adult Residential Substance Use and Supportive Recovery Facility Homelessness Count. It was done around the time of the Metro Vancouver Homeless Count (March 3 to 4, 2020) to complement the count. (Photo: Amy Reid)

Surrey homeless, recovery counts show need for long-term solutions

This was the first time recovery, substance use facilities were included in the count

As the final results of the Metro Vancouver Homeless Count have been released, one of the organizers of the Surrey count says it’s “bloody well time” to start looking at solutions decades into the future.

The count took place this year on March 3 and 4, with more than 1,200 volunteers in 17 communities, including Surrey.

READ ALSO: Volunteers search for ‘hidden problem’ during Surrey’s homeless count, March 5, 2020

Based on the count, which many say is an “undercount,” there are at least 644 people in Surrey experiencing homelessness or unsheltered.

Throughout Metro Vancouver, a total of 3,634 people were identified as experiencing homelessness.

It’s broken down by those who were unsheltered and those who were sheltered: 173 people are unsheltered, while 68 were in an Extreme Weather Response shelter, 375 were in general shelters and 28 had no fixed address.

The Metro Vancouver Homeless Count is done every three years, and between the 2020 count and the 2017 count, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness in Surrey increased by 42.

Jonquil Hallgate, one of the organizers, said she knows it’s not a “fulsome” count as some people might shy away from being interviewed on the day on the count.

But she said to take those 644 people and “multiply by at least” to give a more accurate number of those experiencing homelessness in Surrey.

She said based on this year’s survey, there are more seniors experiencing homelessness.

Hallgate said that could sometimes be due to someone losing a spouse, and one pension may not be enough to pay the bills.

She also noted that while the Indigenous People represent about four per cent of the overall population, it’s Indigenous People who represent “close to 40 per cent of people who identified as homeless.”

Surrey has the fastest-growing Indigenous population in B.C.

In the Surrey count, 141 Indigenous People (70 unsheltered and 71 sheltered) said they were experiencing homelessness.

Meantime, with this year’s count, Surrey got to be part of a pilot project with the “first of its kind” Adult Residential Substance Use and Supportive Recovery Facility Homelessness Count. It was facilitated by the Surrey Road to Home Society.

READ ALSO: Surrey recovery home homeless count hopes to ‘shed some light’ on vulnerable sector, March 14, 2020

Keir Macdonald, CEO of Phoenix Drug and Alcohol Recovery Education Society, said this count has been “several years in the making.”

Macdonald said there has been a “major gap” in the regional count, but not including those who were in temporary substance-use treatment and recovery facilities.

“None of that is permanent housing, yet for whatever reason, and there is a reason, they were never included before.”

He noted there are more than 50 facilities in Surrey, representing 500 to 600 people “that were not getting captured as people that ultimately would have to re-enter the housing market in some stretch.”

There were 192 people who responded to the Surrey recovery facility homeless count.

Of those, about 68 per cent said they had experienced homelessness in their past, “including 25 per cent who has been homeless in the previous 12 months.” It also found that 39 per cent of respondents reported that they “would not have a place to stay if they were to leave the facility.”

“We’re talking about a significant cohort of individuals that had experienced homelessness that had recently experienced homelessness, and without access to those supportive recovery facilities, many individuals who relied on that may end up living on the streets again or cycling through the criminal justice system,” said Macdonald.

He added that 40 per cent said they had “no idea where they would go after leaving the facility.

“This was a large cohort of people that, if we don’t intervene and start capturing this population, we’re really undercounting the need in the community and not adequately providing for the numbers in the community that we’ve been seeing.”

With the risk of homelessness after leaving a facility, Macdonald said there’s a “high likelihood that people could ultimately end up back on the streets and back in homelessness.”

He said his hope with this survey will bring a “broader awareness,” while also having the definition of homelessness “ultimately updated to include these facilities in all future counts across the province.”

“When you start combining some of those figures (the regional count and the recovery count), it actually gets to be a pretty scary number for Surrey. You start getting up around that 1,000-mark instead of a 600-mark. That has significant implications that I would really hope forms a strong basis for an argument for additional resources for Surrey, in particular.”

Hallgate said if there was a system set up after leaving the facilities “where people had somewhere to go or there was housing available, then people could continue on that path to success.”

She said with the recovery count, it’s “heartbreaking” to see people who invest months and years of their lives to become clean and sober, only to leave a program with nowhere to go.

“In many ways, we’re setting people up to fail because instead of having a smooth transition and being able to move through a continuum that ends with success … and then they fall off the other end because the resources needed in this case isn’t there,” she noted.

That’s why Hallgate said it’s time to start looking at long-term solutions when trying to help those who are experiencing homelessness or at-risk of homelessness.

“When people do transportation plans or when they’re planning City Centre, they don’t just look at today. They look at 10 years down the road and 20 years down the road and 50 years down the road,” she explained.

“When city planners plan… they look at longevity and they look at how is it going to last, how is it going to serve the community.”

To her knowledge, Hallgate said she’s not aware of planning for preventing homelessness ever having been done like that in Surrey or “most other cities.”

“We need to be looking at what the need is today, but we also need to be planning for the future knowing that there’s always going to be people who are vulnerably housed or who are about to become unhoused,” she said. “And then, how do we get on top of that and how do we create housing and support systems, so that we truly do eradicate homeless to the largest extent that is possible.

“It’s bloody well time we did it.”

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lauren.collins@surreynowleader.com

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