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4,000 people are now homeless in Greater Vancouver

Local mayors are calling the situation a 'state of emergency' and want a poverty reduction plan and an increase in social assistance.

Local politicians are calling for a poverty reduction plan after the 2017 Greater Vancouver homeless count.

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Local politicians are calling for a poverty reduction plan after the 2017 Greater Vancouver homeless count.

The number of homeless people in Metro Vancouver rose 44 per cent in just three years, according to estimates released ahead of an official count of the region’s homeless population.

Metro Vancouver estimates that 4,000 residents in the region are now homeless, compared to the 2,777 counted in 2014. The regional district says the number of homeless residents has gone up 26 per cent every year since 2011.

In the midst of a real estate boom that has also impacted rental rates, the region now also has the distinction of hosting more than 70 homeless tent camps. The regional district estimates that every week, five people lose their housing and fall into homelessness.

“This is a crisis that is moving in the wrong direction,” said Nicole Read, mayor of Maple Ridge, a municipality that has struggled to permanently house a group of former tent city residents because of community opposition to sites for new transitional housing.

Camper vans and cars double as overnight shelters near a park in Strathcona

Rob Kruyt/For Metro

Camper vans and cars double as overnight shelters near a park in Strathcona

“We have no plan here in the province of British Columbia to address homelessness, and local governments are scrambling to do their best with no resources, no funding to be able to deal with the citizens on their streets who need care and need attention and need places to live.”

Mayor Gregor Robertson, who was first elected mayor in 2008 and campaigned at that time with a promise to end street homelessness, laid the blame for the problem specifically at the feet of current B.C. Premier Christy Clark.

“We had an immediate partnership with the B.C. government, we had community partners and we were very successful for three years in bringing the street homelessness population down from over 800 to under 150,” said Robertson of the period between 2008 and 2011.

“In 2011 things turned and Christy Clark became premier. There was no commitment to solving homelessness here in the province. There was very little follow through action in accelerating the pace to get housing built to address homelessness.”

A tent city on a vacant lot on West Hastings Street was shut down by the City of Vancouver this November

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

A tent city on a vacant lot on West Hastings Street was shut down by the City of Vancouver this November

Homelessness has risen nine per cent every year since 2002, according to Metro Vancouver, but the rate of growth picked up after 2011, rising 26 per cent a year between 2011 and 2016.

Metro Vancouver mayors are calling on the provincial government to work with the federal government, municipalities and community groups to create an action plan to deal with homelessness, a coordinated approach they say has so far been non-existent. B.C. is currently the only province without a poverty reduction plan.

Metro Vancouver’s report also calls for a suite of measures to prevent homelessness, including the improvement and expansion of home care for those with chronic illness, mental illness and addictions; the establishment of supported living programs for youth aging out of foster care; an increase in the supply of rental housing for residents who make less than $30,000 a year; and supports to help former prison inmates find housing.

Increasing social assistance rates, which currently allow just $375 a month for housing and have been frozen for 11 years, is also a key recommendation, as is eliminating the BC Housing waitlist. Many people on the waitlist say they have been waiting years to get housing.

Ilona Schild, 51, addresses people who lived in a tent city at 58 West Hasting after residents were evicted from the site in November 2016

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Ilona Schild, 51, addresses people who lived in a tent city at 58 West Hasting after residents were evicted from the site in November 2016

Rich Coleman, B.C.’s responsible minister for housing, said he was “flabbergasted” by Robertson’s comments. He said his government has made “the most investments made in Canada on any file like this,” including $375 million on affordable housing and rent supplements in Metro Vancouver. He called on municipalities to use their land zoning powers to protect existing rental and build new, higher-density rental housing.

Coleman added the federal government could provide tax incentives and low-cost financing to build rental and non-profit housing.

Coleman has in the past said that the BC Housing waitlist is not a good measure of how many people need housing in the province, since many people on the list are already housed and are asking for transfers within the housing system. In response to the Metro Vancouver report, he said that homelessness numbers are rising in part because more people are coming to B.C. from provinces like Alberta to look for work.

“We were bending the curve (of homeless numbers) downward but then the economy in Alberta changed dramatically,” Coleman said.

However, homeless counts conducted by Metro Vancouver in 2014 and the City of Vancouver in 2016 found that the majority of respondents had lived in the municipality where they were interviewed for at least five years.

Metro Vancouver will conduct its regional homeless count on March 7 and 8, with results expected to be released by April 4. The federal government will be releasing a National Housing Strategy this spring.

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