As a volunteer in this year’s homeless count, Michelle Patterson didn’t expect to find a lot in her assigned section in Vancouver’s West End. But she found four homeless men.
Patterson, a researcher and an adjunct professor at SFU’s faculty of health sciences, said that what struck her later was that she and her buddy almost missed seeing any of these people. According to her, they were tucked away in hidden spaces like small passageways in underground garages. When interviewed by Patterson, the men claimed that there are several other homeless people in the West End, and more living in Stanley Park.
Patterson spoke to the Georgia Straight on April 8, the same day the Metro Vancouver regional steering committee on homelessness released preliminary figures from the 2008 homeless count. The results show that 2,592 individuals were found homeless by volunteers in a 24-hour count from March 10 to 11, representing a 19-percent increase from the last count in 2005. Count organizers themselves stressed that this new figure, as were the previous ones in 2005 and 2002, is an undercount.
“Homeless people find these little nooks or crannies where they’re not going to be interrupted and asked to leave,” Patterson said by phone. “There’s no accepted or consistent methodology for estimating the scope of the problem.”
In February, the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction at SFU released a study principally written by Patterson on housing issues facing those with addictions and mental-health problems.
Drawing from various existing data sources, the authors of Housing and Support for Adults With Severe Addictions and/or Mental Illness in British Columbia stated that there could be up to a total of 10,500 people in the province who are “absolutely homeless”. These are “people who live on the streets, [and] cycle through shelters and rooming houses”, according to the report.
But even that estimate of 10,500 homeless people throughout the province may be a low-ball figure. “Given that homeless counts are considered to grossly undercount the homeless population, we would expect this figure to be a low-end estimate,” the same report said.
The document also noted that about 75 percent of the estimated “absolutely homeless” people have “problems related to mental illness and/or addiction”.
The 2008 homeless count by subregion
> Vancouver: 1,547
> Surrey: 386
> New Westminster: 124
> North Shore: 113
> Tri-Cities: 95
> Maple Ridge: 90
> Burnaby: 86
> Langley: 80
> Richmond: 54
> Delta: 17
Source: Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness
In her phone conversation with the Straight, Patterson said that using the same assumptions from the study, Metro Vancouver may have up to 8,000 homeless people.
Vancouver-Kensington MLA David Chudnovsky has his own estimate of the homeless population in the province, and his figure doesn’t differ that much from that of the Patterson-led study. Also drawing from various sources, including the now-outdated 2005 homeless count by the regional steering committee on homelessness, Chudnovsky calculated that there are 10,580 homeless people across B.C.
The provincial NDP’s critic on homelessness, Chudnovsky released these figures in November last year before he started his provincewide consultation with various communities regarding this concern.
Rebecca Siggner works at the Vancouver-based Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia, and she did research for the 2008 homeless count.
“We did find 398 people unable to participate [in the count] and we didn’t include them,” Siggner told the Straight. “That is an indicator of the undercount—the fact that we found almost 400 who aren’t included in the overall number.”
Also not included were mostly young couch surfers who didn’t access social services during the time the count was made.
Siggner noted that the number of homeless people staying in shelters didn’t change substantially because of the fixed supply of shelter units available. However, the 2008 count showed that the number of people staying on the streets rose to 1,547, representing more than a third of an increase from the 2005 figure of 1,127.
The count results also showed that the largest increases in the number of street homeless people occurred in Vancouver, the Tri-Cities, and the North Shore. The number of homeless on the streets more than doubled in the North Shore, Tri-Cities, Burnaby, and Delta.
For this story, the Straight asked Vancouver locals, By 2010, Mayor Sam Sullivan’s Project Civil City aims to cut homelessness by 50 percent. Is this a pipe dream?