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, BC||59 (2015)||10,832 (2011)||1:183|
|Ottawa, ON||6,705 (2013)||1,236,324 (2011)||1:184|
|Whitehorse, YT||107 (2011)||23,276 (2011)||1:217|
|Halifax, NS||1,716 (2014)||390,328 (2011)||1:227|
|Calgary, AB||3,533 (2014)||1,097,000 (2011)||1:310|
|Vancouver, BC||1,746 (2015)||603,500 (2011)||1:346|
|Nunavut||98 (2014)||34,000 (2014)||1:347|
|Brandom, MB||117 (2015)||46, 061 (2011)||1:394|
|Toronto, ON||5,219 (2013)||2,615,060 (2011)||1:501|
|Montreal, QC||3,016 (2015)||1,650,000 (2011)||1:547|
|New Brunswick||1,296 (2011)||753,914 (2014)||1:581|
|PEI||240 (2012)||146,105 (2012)||1:608|
|Saskatoon, SK||352 (2012)||222,189 (2011)||1:631|
|Winnipeg, MB||765 (2012)||730, 018 (2011)||1:954|
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.