When staff presented the final numbers from a local homeless count to Vancouver council earlier this month, they gave a profile of an average person without a home in the city.
The municipal government’s advocate for the homeless, Judy Graves, told council if they were to see that typical homeless individual on the street that morning, they would likely find him to be male and in his 40s. He would likely suffer from an addiction, a mental illness, and a serious medical condition, and would have experienced severe trauma. He would also likely be aboriginal.
According to the 24-hour homeless count conducted on March 27, 2012, aboriginal people continue to be overrepresented in Vancouver’s homeless population, comprising 32 percent of that group, while being just two percent of the general population.
“We make up such a small percentage of the general population, but among the homeless, it’s a significant portion of the population,” Patrick Stewart, chair of the Aboriginal Homelessness Steering Committee, told the Georgia Straight in an interview.
But a recent public-opinion survey conducted by Angus Reid for the Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness suggested that awareness of this reality is limited.
Stewart noted that when survey respondents were asked what should be done about homelessness in the Lower Mainland, 58 percent said more affordable housing with support services should be provided. When it comes to addressing aboriginal homelessness, however, the majority of respondents said they would support other options, such as increased community development supports like job training and employment opportunities.
While Stewart called these kinds of services a “needed response” to aboriginal homelessness, he argued they’re just a small part of the solution. He noted that about 5,000 people are on the waiting list for affordable housing for urban aboriginal people managed by three organizations in Metro Vancouver, with many waiting years for a spot to open up.
Graves said a major barrier aboriginal people face in obtaining housing appears to be prejudice from potential landlords.
“It is very, very difficult to find housing for aboriginal people, many of whom are tremendous tenants, and tremendous people, and it’s a bias, and it’s very, very difficult to overcome,” she told the Straight by phone.
According to Stewart, many homeless aboriginal people are dealing with the negative effects of residential schools or the foster-care system. As a former foster child himself, Stewart noted one of his siblings ran away from the system and was homeless for nearly 20 years.
“He’s no longer homeless and got himself off the street and he doesn’t want to go back, but he didn’t cope well at all,” Stewart recounted.
He added that people staying at the temporary homeless shelter run by the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre include the working poor and university students.
Stewart wants to see more public education around aboriginal history and the kind of government support First Nations people are eligible for.
“[There are] a lot of myths,” he noted. “People think they get free housing, they get free everything, and it’s not the case.”
The count conducted in March indicated the city’s homeless population is aging and in poorer health compared to those in previous counts. Among the 1,602 homeless people counted, 59 percent had an addiction, 40 percent had a mental illness, 36 percent had a medical condition, and 30 percent had a physical disability. According to Graves, typical medical conditions include cancer, hepatitis, chronic bronchitis, asthma, and chest diseases.
The report was presented before Homelessness Action Week, which runs until Saturday (October 13), with events across the region.