The City of Vancouver has recorded a small drop in its number of unsheltered homeless people.
The number of homeless people living in shelters remained relatively stable from previous years. In 2013, the city recorded 1,327 sheltered homeless and in 2014, it found 1,267. In 2015, the number of people living in shelters was 1,258.
The total number of homeless people recorded in 2015 was 1,746, down 57 from last year but still up 146 from the 2013 count.
Speaking to the Straight the evening before the 2015 data was released, Vision Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang greeted the new numbers with optimism.
“From my perspective, it is great that the numbers have stabilized and are down a little bit,” he said in a telephone interview. “It means that, clearly, we are building enough housing to get people inside.”
Jang however cautioned it could be difficult to sustain the level of progress recorded in 2015. He explained it looks like the city is seeing a change in the demographics of its homeless population. Vancouver has succeeded in finding shelter for much of its older homeless people, he explained. But Jang said more younger people are now finding themselves without a home, which he noted is a group that can be more resistant to help.
“I suspect the makeup of the homeless population is starting to shift quite considerably, to a whole new generation,” he emphasized. “That is something we have to be ready for.”
The public release of the 2015 homeless count was preceded by a presentation by Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s representative for children and youth. She blamed the provincial government for systemic failures.
“We’ve had a grotesquely underfunded foster-care system with very little innovation for years,” she said. “When you have a child-welfare system that has been underfunded, that has been buffeted by a lot of change, it affects a generation of kids. So the youth homeless group that you are seeing today—the 19 to 24 year old—are some of the young people that were most-heavily punished by a serious retreat from any youth services in the early 2000s. They are at a point, demographically, where they’ve hit the street and they have nothing.”
Turpel-Lafond noted there are 700 young people who age out of B.C. foster care every year. She warned many of them do not have the support they need to keep themselves off the street.
She also criticized the province for failing to implement policy recommendations that could help save young people from falling through cracks in the system. Among other recommendations, Turpel-Lafond said the province should create a collaborative strategy for youth and appoint a youth secretariat.
“I’m not happy with the [province’s] response,” she said. “I feel that the response has been primarily lip service, and hasn’t had a presence on the ground….If they were going to launch anything, I would have hoped they would have launched it by now.”
Turpel-Lafond has also repeatedly recommended the province raise the age at which young adults are forced out of foster care beyond 18 years. She noted that 40 percent of Vancouver’s homeless population has spent time as youth in foster care.
“The province needs to extend foster care to 24,” she said. “I can’t stop saying that….Other provinces have done that for a reason and other provinces have been able to address these issues.”
Reacting to Turpel-Lafond’s presentation, Mayor Gregor Robertson proposed the City of Vancouver formally call on the provincial government to “extend the option for foster care to the age of 24”. He also suggested the city create a “rapid response capacity” that would allow it to “ensure that action happens” when a child is identified as at-risk.
The motion passed unanimously.
In a telephone interview conducted shortly before Turpel-Lafond’s presentation, B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay said the Crown corporation will be working with the city to craft a continued response to Vancouver’s homeless situation.
“It’s good to see the street homeless count go down by about 50,” he told the Straight. “I think in the next few weeks, we will be diving through the details with the city, looking for particular trends. And that can help define some of the strategies that we’ll focus on.”