News / Vancouver

Homelessness rises among elderly, aboriginal people in Metro Vancouver

Mayors link the crisis directly to soaring housing costs.

Vancouver's Sugar Mountain tent city on Aug. 17, 2017.

Jennifer Gauthier / Vancouver Freelance

Vancouver's Sugar Mountain tent city on Aug. 17, 2017.

Metro Vancouver mayors are linking rising numbers of homeless people directly to the region’s housing crisis, as final numbers from the 2017 homeless count show homelessness is rising especially among aboriginal people and the elderly.

“The Vancouver housing system is extremely stressed these days and it’s pushing seniors right out of housing and into homelessness,” said Lorraine Copas, executive director of the Social Planning and Research Council of B.C.

Elderly people represented 18 per cent of the region's homeless population in 2008. That's risen to 23 per cent in 2017.

“I know that the shelters care about this and are struggling on what you do with the senior who is in their 80s and no longer has a place to live. We’ve even heard of stories of seniors camping in a tent in the winter, trying to get by.”

Aboriginal people make up 34 per cent of the region’s homeless population — despite being just 2.5 per cent of the general population. To make matters worse, aboriginal people are more likely to be unsheltered homeless (living outside instead of in a homeless shelter or couch surfing) than other demographics.

Overall, the number of homeless rose 30 per cent between 2014 and 2017. Around 22 per cent of those surveyed were employed full time or part time, and 82 per cent suffered from at least one health condition.

Mike Clay, mayor of Port Moody, and Greg Moore, mayor of Port Coquitlam, emphasized that homeless people do not come from “somewhere else:” half of those surveyed say they have lived in their community for 10 years.

“We blame people for being homeless,” said Jonquil Hallgate, an advocate for the homeless in Surrey. “We say, they’ve made bad choices, they don’t work hard enough, they’re lazy, they live with addiction and mental health challenges. In life there is cause-and-effect, moments that affect us differently.”

Hallgate went on to describe some of the life circumstances homeless people have shared with her: a young aboriginal man who had been placed in 48 different foster homes; a young woman sold into prostitution at 13 by her mother; a veteran who had difficulty living inside because of severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

Metro Vancouver Regional District released its initial 2017 homeless count numbers in March, along with an action plan that called for help from senior levels of government. Clay said Metro Vancouver is examining its own large portfolio of social housing to see how it can leverage city-owned land and work with partners to increase the amount of affordable housing in the region.

“We know that affordable dwellings have declined in Metro Vancouver at a rate of  eight per cent a year,” he said.

The new NDP government has committed to fund 2,000 units of temporary, pre-fabricated modular housing (a quicker and cheaper way of building) throughout the Metro Vancouver region, specifically targeted to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Moore called that a “good first step,” but said the provincial government needs to also move forward to develop a strategic plan with municipalities. Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said the B.C. government plans to start working on an action plan for homelessness.

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