Homeless in Vancouver: City's homeless problem looks average by comparison

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      This week’s announcement that there are 1,746 homeless people living in Vancouver—just a fraction down from last year’s total of 1,803—was generally greeted with nonplussed resignation.

      Conventional wisdom, after all, says that between the access to cheap street drugs, social services, and the singularly mild south coast climate, Vancouver just has to be the number-one mecca for homeless people in Canada.

      Back in March, as this year’s homeless count was getting underway, Vancouver’s mayor Gregor Robertson played to this assumption when he blamed his administration’s failure to end homelessness on both the lack of affordable housing and the warm climate.

      And the results of the 2015 count, announced earlier this week, appear to make the point—1,746 homeless people seems like awful lot for a city the size of Vancouver, right?

      Well, contrary to popular opinion, Vancouver doesn’t look like the Canadian capital of homelessness; not when it’s compared to other major Canadian urban centres. Then it looks about average.

      A climate of uncertainty and the capital of homelessness

      Williams Lake, BC59 (2015)10,832 (2011)1:183
      Ottawa, ON6,705 (2013)1,236,324 (2011)1:184
      Whitehorse, YT107 (2011)23,276 (2011)1:217
      Halifax, NS1,716 (2014)390,328 (2011)1:227
      Calgary, AB3,533 (2014)1,097,000 (2011)1:310
      Vancouver, BC1,746 (2015)603,500 (2011)1:346
      Nunavut98 (2014)34,000 (2014)1:347
      Brandom, MB117 (2015)46, 061 (2011)1:394
      Toronto, ON5,219 (2013)2,615,060 (2011)1:501
      Montreal, QC3,016 (2015)1,650,000 (2011)1:547
      New Brunswick1,296 (2011)753,914 (2014)1:581
      PEI240 (2012)146,105 (2012)1:608
      Saskatoon, SK352 (2012)222,189 (2011)1:631
      Winnipeg, MB765 (2012)730, 018 (2011)1:954

      Totals/avg. ratio:




      Of the 13 other Canadian metropolitan centres that I found sufficient numbers for (at least one in each province or territory), Vancouver’s rate of visible homelessness ranks in about the middle of the pack—both when homelessness is measured as a total number and in per capita terms as a ratio with the general population.

      When measured in per capita terms, five of the 13 Canadian metropolitan centres had higher homeless-to-general-population ratios than Vancouver (Williams Lake, Ottawa, Whitehorse, Halifax, and Calgary). And four of the 13 also had higher total numbers of homeless people (Ottawa, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal).

      Based on the evidence at hand, it’s quite likely that the dubious honour of having the highest rate of homelessness in Canada actually belongs to Ottawa, the capital of Canada, which was estimated in 2013 to have both a higher total number, as well as a higher per capita number of homeless people than Vancouver or any other major Canadian metropolitan area.

      At 6,705, Ottawa was estimated to have nearly 5,000 more homeless people than Vancouver and (I think) about double the ratio of homeless people.

      In Ottawa, it works out to one homeless person for every 184 Ottawa residents, while in Vancouver the ratio is one homeless person for every 346 Vancouverites.

      All those homeless people and “lake-effect” snow storms—who’d a thunk?

      Vancouver can’t be number one at everything

      I don’t mind saying that the numbers are a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

      Six of the 14 results, such as Vancouver’s, are from standardized one-day, point-in-time counts (PiT), which are inaccurate enough as it is. Another six are estimates of unknown methodology and two are annual unique shelter stays.

      But such is the patchwork quilt of homeless numbers in Canada.

      By late 2016, there will be a Canada-wide selection of standardized PiT counts to choose from but even these shouldn’t be seen as providing anything like a definitive picture of homelessness in Canada—more like a blurred snapshot of a fast-moving event—suitable for giving people a general impression.

      In this case, the impression that I want to leave people with is simply that, contrary to what they may think and assume and be told, the available evidence doesn’t seem to support the notion of Vancouver as some kind of dramatic black hole of homelessness, unique in all of Canada.

      Where homelessness is concerned, we’re just an average Canadian city but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still complain about our homeless problem.

      Vancouver really is unique in all of Canada—when it comes to complaining.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.



      Blue Bull

      Jul 10, 2015 at 7:21pm

      Thank you, Stanley. Well researched.


      Jul 11, 2015 at 2:13am

      Alright, first off, I do not think Williams lake should be on this list. Population 10,832. It is not a metropolis. I found the Ottawa numbers most disconcerting but as it turns out, 6705 is the total number of people who used shelters in 2013. So if you used a shelter and found housing, you are still included as homeless. Unless the other cities are using the same methodology, this is an unfair comparison. It would make more sense to compare stand alone counts in my opinion. Of course the homeless numbers in Vancouver did not improve. Vision donors have been actively renovicting vulnerable people from the only housing they could afford, slapping a coat of paint on the building then renting to people who feel paying $1000/month for a SRO gives them authenticity while saving the planet. As if.

      Stanley Q Woodvine

      Jul 11, 2015 at 3:47pm


      There aren't enough Point-in-Time counts to compare, particularly as neither Ottawa nor Toronto will do them and I believe that both those cities would beat Vancouver both in total homelessness and as a percentage of population.

      The sketch these numbers show is more enough to cast serious doubt on the notion that Vancouver attracts a disproportionate share of homelessness from the rest of Canada or that our climate is the all-important magnet, that many, including Mayor Robertson, would have us believe.

      Putting aside Ottawa, Calgary, with a PiT count, is higher across the board than Vancouver.

      Williams Lake is listed not as punishment but because the community went to the trouble to perform a PiT count and because the results show how such a small community can have a comparatively bigger homeless problem than a city the size of Vancouver.

      Too much of the discussion around homelessness is knee-jerk nonsense and not enough is evidence-based.

      Unfortunately Point-in-Time counts paint an inaccurate picture also, counting, as they do, only visible homeless at best.

      M K

      Jul 12, 2015 at 12:50pm

      A big difference with cities in other provinces is they have other services such as for the mentally ill, drug and alcohol treatment, counselling. Also, legal advocacy, and Human Rights Commission. All BC has is charities, soup kitchens, and wait lists. Almost all advocacy in BC has been cut, unless one has one of the few mental illnesses that BC Liberals will help. Many who are struggling are well aware that, short of a suicide attempt, there is no help.
      BC has little social safety net, and no stepping stones to get out of a problem, just a swift kick downward, for example, if you lose a job, get a serious illness. The Clark govt is withholding millions of dollars earmarked for Justice for poor people and families. Once you're down on your luck, only Jesus is offered as a solution in Vancouver through the charities and non-profits. Many of BC's social services are non-accredited. Christy Clark is abdicating her responsibilities for vulnerable people.

      Nice try

      Aug 21, 2015 at 9:49am

      I challenge anyone to hang out in an alley around Hastings and Main and then tell me that "Vancouver's homeless problem looks average by comparison."