One of the organizers of Homelessness Action Week wants to draw attention to rising challenges faced by the elderly in keeping a roof over their heads.
Deb Bryant, chair of the regional steering committee on homelessness, told the Georgia Straight by phone that between 2009 and 2012, there was a 45 percent increase in the number of seniors on the waiting list for social housing in the Lower Mainland.
“More and more seniors are entering their retirement years with a lot of debt,” Bryant explained.
She noted that this differs markedly from the situation 15 years ago. “Also, income is more likely to be fixed [for seniors] and the cost of housing is escalating,” she added.
In August, Equifax Canada released a report that showed that Canadians over 65 had the fastest-rising consumer debt loads from April to June, compared with the same period over the previous year. The national rate of increase was 6.1 percent, whereas for seniors it was 6.5 percent.
Homelessness Action Week takes place from October 13 to 19, and includes approximately 100 events to raise awareness and money to address the issue.
Bryant, a director in the community-impact department of United Way of the Lower Mainland, said that in addition to promoting awareness about issues facing seniors, the regional steering committee wants to highlight difficulties facing aboriginal people and single mothers.
Volunteers and staff with various agencies will be in the streets during the week to encourage people to seek out services and fill in applications for housing. (For more information, see www.stophomelessness.ca/.)
“In the Lower Mainland, it’s no secret that housing is extremely expensive,” she said.
On October 8, Vancouver city council received a staff report noting that the number of homeless people in the city has remained steady from last year. That’s according to the 2013 homeless count.
The number of people surveyed during the annual count, which was conducted in March, was 1,600, compared to 1,602 in 2012. While the number of homeless sleeping on the streets has decreased from 306 last year to 273 this year, the number staying in shelters has gone up, from 1,296 in 2012 to 1,327 in the latest count.
Vision Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang said factors contributing to the number of people on the streets and in shelters include the amount of people coming from prisons, hospitals, and the foster-care system who become homeless.
“By setting the very clear goals we have to try to reduce street homelessness, we’ve actually got conversations going on now with the prison system, for example, so B.C. Housing is now setting aside a certain number of beds to make sure folks have a place to go,” Jang told reporters. “Let’s be clear, if we were not doing what we’re doing, there would be hundreds more people living on the streets.”
According to staff, about 60 percent of the people using the city and B.C. Housing’s winter shelters during the last five years have moved into housing.
“This constitutes almost 500 individuals who have accessed permanent housing directly from our shelter program,” Brenda Prosken, general manager of community services, told council.
Other details in this year’s count include a finding that the homeless population is in worse health. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed reported having an addiction, 46 percent said they have a mental illness, 42 percent have a medical condition, and 34 percent have a physical disability.
The count also identified 45 women sleeping on the streets this year, and showed that aboriginal people continue to be disproportionately represented, at 30 percent of the homeless population.
Bryant said that the regional steering committee endorses a “Housing First” approach to the issue.
“It basically says that in order for people to solve their housing problems, they need to be housed first,” she stated. “Then, if there’s other services that are needed to help solve a problem in the long term—like mental-health service or other health services and employment supports—then [you can] bring those in once housing is established. I think there are really good results from that in the region.”
She added that between 75 and 86 percent of the time when people were dealt with in this way, they retained housing in the long term. “Those are excellent results for getting people off the street and into permanent housing.”