When you hear the word “homeless,” what comes to mind?
Gone are the days when homelessness could be summed up with the stereotype of street-hardened unfortunates pushing shopping carts brimming with all their belongings.
In fact, the number of street homeless has declined in most parts of the region, except Vancouver, since 2011.
A perfect storm of problems – large aging population, fragile economy, widening gap between the haves and have-nots, growing rates of mental illness and substance abuse, and skyrocketing living costs – have combined and are leaving many without a stable, permanent place to call home.
Today, those with no fixed address increasingly include the elderly, young people and the working poor.
So how does one define homeless?
According to Metro Vancouver’s homeless count, conducted in the region every three years since 2002, there are sheltered and unsheltered homeless.
The sheltered include those who are staying in emergency shelters and transition houses, ER beds and detox centres, and in jails, recovery homes or hospitals.
The unsheltered refers to all those who have no physical shelter – they are “urban camping” or sleeping in alleys, doorways, parkades and vehicles.
The last homelessness count in 2014 indicated there were nearly 2,800 homeless individuals in the Metro Vancouver region – 403 in Surrey – a figure that included both the sheltered and unsheltered.
Organizers consider the homelessness count number an underestimate of the true scope of the problem. The count reflects a minimum number of homeless because not all of those on the street or in shelters can be physically counted. The count is conducted in one 24-hour period, and it’s voluntary. Not everyone chooses to take part.
And it doesn’t factor in living arrangements that are temporary and unstable, such as those who are couch surfing or borrowing money to make rent.
Surrey social services providers say about 50 per cent of the city’s homeless population is made up of people over the age of 50.
Many are showing up at shelters with a host of medical conditions, made worse by their advancing years and the amount of time they’ve been without a stable place to call home.
Medical issues can include anything from diabetes to incontinence, from chronic infections to cancer.
About one-third of the city’s homeless are the under-employed – those desperately looking for work or those working but not making enough money to pay even the most meagre of rents.
For many, “their careers have ended and there’s no longer jobs in their field,” says Peter Fedos, program director at Options Community Services.
Young people aged 19-24 make up about 10 per cent of the homeless, Fedos says.
Of that 10 per cent, more than half are “aging out” of foster care, becoming ineligible for provincial government oversight. Left to their own devices, they end up on the streets or in a homeless shelter.
Their problems are often compounded by a traumatic event in their younger lives that haunts them well into adulthood, if it ever stops at all.
“When you look at this population, (it) has what they call adverse childhood events,” Fedos says. “Something really traumatic has happened and that’s one of the pathways into homelessness as an adult.”
Untreated trauma can lead to mental illness and addictions, and hard-core street homelessness, which rounds out the demographic in Surrey.
The paths to homelessness are varied and complex, but Fedos notes a big part of the solution is simple: More housing.
Surrey Coun. Judy Villeneuve, who is also chair of the city’s social planning committee and president of the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society, agrees.
She says affordable housing is crucial and noted Surrey is doing all it can to address that, citing the establishment of the society to help raise funds and invest in infrastructure and services, and council’s recent decision to allow a secondary suite in every home.
However, Villeneuve notes infrastructure is not the only answer.
“You have to deal with the source of the problem,” she says, noting many of today’s challenges took root decades ago.
The federal government abandoned its National Housing Strategy in 1987, then bailed on providing funding for housing cooperatives six years later.
Adding to the problem is that B.C. has one of the highest child poverty rates in the country, as well as skyrocketing costs of living.
“We are all worried about the widening gap between the rich and the poor,” Villeneuve says. “A lot of people are working two to three jobs because their wages are so low.”
The private sector could play a role to help end that, for example, if employers provided living wages, she says. Working with BC Housing and the Fraser Health Authority to introduce or improve services is also key.
“Senior levels of government are going to realize, hopefully eventually, the need to put housing first for people,” Villeneuve says.
She adds creating policies that lift people out of poverty doesn’t just alleviate homelessness. For every $1 of taxpayer money spent on prevention, $9 is saved.
Shayne Williams, executive director of the Lookout Society, notes the cost of putting one person in social housing can be as low as $199 a month, compared to $701 for rent supplements, $4,333 for a provincial jail cell and $10,900 for a hospital bed.
“There isn’t a national housing strategy, and we’re the only G8 country without one,” he says.
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