Has homelessness been reduced in Victoria?

By Judith Lavoie, October 2014

It all depends on who you include, and there’s an affordability crisis that could lead to more.

Pale morning faces emerge from the shadows and chilly hands reach for a coffee, doughnut or first cigarette of the day. Many, with hoodies pulled tight or blankets wrapped around their shoulders, have spent the night under a bush or in a doorway while others have scored a shelter bed or crashed on a friend’s couch.

Some are too twitchy to hold a cup, others are ready to face another day on their own terms, and some need a hug even more than a smoke.

It’s 5:15 am and Reverend Al Tysick, founder of the Dandelion Society, is on his morning rounds of Victoria’s streets, handing out coffee, checking on those needing medical care and, as ever, pondering the homelessness conundrum.

As November’s municipal elections approach, questions are again focusing on the number of homeless, mentally ill or addicted people on Victoria’s streets and whether more can be done to alleviate the problem, not only for the sake of those on the street, but also for business owners and tourism operators who fear street problems drive people away from Victoria’s core.

Mayor Dean Fortin, who, since his 2008 election, has prioritized ending homelessness, raised eyebrows last month when he said the number of homeless people on Victoria’s streets had dropped from 1500 in 2008 to 350.

Later he clarified that he was speaking about “chronically” homeless people. “We have moved on in the last six years, but clearly there is more to be done,” said Fortin, warning that no one can rest on their laurels until homelessness is eradicated. “It has been quite a community effort and it’s one we will continue,” he said. Complaints about panhandling or people sleeping on the street continue, but most complainants are people who do not remember what the situation was like previously, “when they were sleeping six deep on Yates Street,” Fortin said.

Still, the 350 figure puzzles Tysick, who sees about 80 people on streets each morning, just in the core area. He believes the homeless population is increasing, rather than decreasing, because of the city’s growth.

Supportive housing (housing that includes services) has been found for many with mental health and addiction issues, but, in the early morning gloom, the number of people greeting Tysick during his regular stops, and the palpable human misery of addicts huddled near Amelia Street, seems as gut-wrenching as in previous years.

“We have to come up with more housing,” said Tysick, looking at the group of more than 20 people waiting for him on the steps of a Downtown church where many have spent the night. “Yeah, homelessness sucks,” said Jody, a small, thin woman still shivering from a night on the concrete steps.

Part of the disconnect around numbers is due to the different sub-populations. At one end of the spectrum are the “hard-to-house” with persistent addiction and mental health issues, while at the other end are those who just hit a financial crisis and end up in a shelter temporarily.

The hard-to-house occupy up to 55 percent of bed time at local shelters, although they make up only 15 per cent of the shelter-using population. Many of the remaining 85 percent will stay in the shelter only once and do not need supportive housing. The number of short-term users points to the need for affordable housing and preventive measures.

Andrew Wynn-Williams, Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness executive director, has extrapolated figures from the latest report done for the Coalition by researchers at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research and Simon Fraser University and concluded that between 350 and 370 additional supportive housing beds are needed to help hard-to-house individuals.

The figures show that about 270 people regularly using shelters fall into that group, but women and youth are clearly under-represented as they tend to avoid shelters, so other factors have been used to estimate how many non-shelter-users are high needs, Wynn-Williams said.

The study, called “Patterns of Homelessness,” looked at 46,000 shelter records of 4332 individuals between April 2010 and May 2014. It found that about 1700 individuals used Greater Victoria’s 200 emergency shelter beds during one year.

The Coalition, in their own one-night count last February, found 1167 people using a shelter, transitional housing, treatment centre or motel. The count did not include those sleeping outside or couch surfing.

Bernie Pauly, of UVic’s Centre for Addictions Research, who supervised the “Patterns of Homelessness” report, said the figures show it’s important to look at the needs of different groups. “Those experiencing temporary homelessness would benefit from rapid re-housing, more emergency cash assistance and rental subsidies to prevent or quickly address homelessness,” she said. “Those with recurring episodes of homelessness would benefit from programs that combine intensive supports with housing.”

Hannah Rabinovitch, a former Victoria emergency shelter worker who conducted the study, was shocked to find how many seniors were among those needing to stay in the shelter four or five times, with average stays of six months. “I was stunned by the number of seniors with complex physical and mental health problems regularly seeking refuge in emergency shelters,” said Rabinovitch, who believes the shelters have become de facto discharge plans for hospitals.

 

AN ANOMALY in the “Patterns of Homelessness” report is that shelter use increased last year by eight percent. It is possible that, with some chronic users housed, more occasional users can now get into the shelter, “but [the increase] is certainly an indicator of need,” admitted Fortin.

Tysick warns that estimates based on shelter use can be misleading, and wonders whether it’s time for a full-scale homeless count. Such a count would include more of those on his early morning rounds, including, for example, Terry Emslie, who, as Tysick talks, is asleep in the back of the Dandelion Society van where he will stay until 4 pm—a kind of mobile housing unit. It has been a daily routine for almost two years, ever since Tysick found Emslie freezing on the street and drove him around to warm him up.

Emslie, who has spent time in prison and has a horror of small rooms or curtailed freedoms, prefers to be outside rather than sharing space in a rooming house or a shelter, meaning he is among those who are all but invisible to agencies estimating numbers.

Emslie, inspecting wounds in his feet, does not see any prospects of a home in his immediate future. “There’s a nasty little hole that won’t heal and, until I am housed and can kick back and stay off my feet, it is not going to heal,” he said.

While the Coalition study shows that the majority of those using shelters do not need supportive housing, “It means we have an affordable housing crisis,” said Wynn-Williams. This is a city with high rents and a vacancy rate of less than one percent for units renting for less than $700 a month.

Mike Walker, who has been at Rock Bay Landing shelter since January and is now in a transitional unit, wholeheartedly agrees it’s an affordability crisis. “Tell me where in this town you can find a one-bedroom for $375?” he asked. (Average rent for a bachelor unit in Greater Victoria is $695, but BC welfare payments to singles are only $610, of which $375 is allocated for rent, leaving $235 for all other expenses. Persons with disabilities receive $906 per month.)

Like many others, Walker is forced to look at market housing as, with only 82 new units of subsidized housing built annually in Greater Victoria between 1995 and 2007, demand far outstrips supply. There are more than 1500 people on BC Housing’s waiting list.

It’s unsurprising, then, that pushing affordable housing projects—both market and non-market—has become as much a part of solving Greater Victoria’s homelessness problems as housing those with chronic problems.

Cool Aid, which is planning to build 45 units of supportive housing for seniors in Saanich as soon as a provincial contribution materializes, has also launched a “Help End Homelessness” campaign, chaired by Rob Reid, with the aim of raising $50-million to build or repurpose 360 apartments.

Tysick said municipal support is vital, but substantial financial help has to come from the federal and provincial governments and the feds have been missing in action, paying only lip service to housing and poverty problems since policy changes reduced investment in affordable housing about eight years ago.

Although studies separate the chronically homeless from those who cannot afford a home, it can be a fine—and shifting—line. An accident or job loss can move those at risk into the homeless category in the blink of an eye and, once on the street, addiction is another frequent peril.

Mayoral candidate Councillor Lisa Helps wants to work on stimulating the job market and increasing the supply of affordable housing. “With 50 percent of Victorians making $27,000 a year or less after taxes, when you talk about affordable housing and homelessness, so much more needs to be done on the prevention side,” she said.

Helps is exploring an idea of tax exemptions that would see the City of Victoria offer a 10 percent property tax exemption to landlords willing to make 10 percent of their units affordable—probably in the range of $500 to $575 a month—for ten years. “We still have to look at a business plan,” she said. (A similar tax holiday program is in place for seismic upgrading of downtown heritage properties.)

Meanwhile, Tysick knows he is not about to become redundant. And he continues to hope that the entire community will start paying more attention to poverty and homelessness. “I fully believe that how we treat the poor and homeless across this country will determine our future,” he wrote on his blog. “Let’s treat them as citizens of this great country, not as outlaws. Let us reach out to them in understanding, in solidarity, for the good of us all.”

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith