Commentary: Vancouver's homeless population is made up of more than numbers

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      By David Wells & Lorraine Copas

      The Homelessness Services Association of BC (HSABC) is gearing up, training and preparing teams of volunteers to conduct the 2023 Point-in-Time (PiT) Homeless Count in Greater Vancouver. Its teams will be out on the streets of 11 communities across Metro Vancouver on the evening of March 7 and during the day on March 8.

      HSABC is conducting the PiT Count on behalf of both the Indigenous Homelessness Steering Committee and the community advisory board for Metro Vancouver Reaching Home; and as a contractor to the Lu'ma Native Housing Society, the community entity for Reaching Home. Reaching Home is the Canadian government’s homelessness strategy, a community-based program aimed at preventing and reducing homelessness across the country. This program provides funding to urban, Indigenous, rural, and remote communities to help them address their local homelessness needs.

      This year’s count marks the first time that demographic information will be collected about who is experiencing homelessness in the region since March 2020—the last time a count happened, less than a week before the COVID-19 pandemic began. At that time, there were 3,634 people experiencing homelessness identified throughout Greater Vancouver.

      Based on what our partners have observed in their communities over the past three years, the sense is that more people than ever before are struggling to find safe, appropriate, and affordable housing, as the decline in housing affordability accelerates. Vancouver continues to have the country’s highest average rents.

      However, the Point-in-Time Homeless Count is about so much more than numbers. It’s about real people who don’t have access to safe and affordable housing. It’s about gaining an accurate understanding of who is living without housing—and the reasons behind that. Children, youth, women, people of all marginalized gender identities, and those sleeping in RVs, vehicles and encampments, and who do not have access to permanent housing need urgent action and community support. The count will help us to collect this critical information.

      In order to incorporate that deeper intersectional perspective, we’ve revised the count survey in a number of ways over the last several years to learn more about racial and gender identities and sexual orientation. We share the data we collect with agencies and all levels of government to inform decision-making and advocate for solutions that are trauma-informed, culturally safe, incorporate harm reduction, are oriented towards social justice and equity, and contribute to decolonization and anti-discrimination.

      This fall, we’ll be sharing a report on the count that addresses how long-term trends in the number and demographics of people who are experiencing homelessness have changed since the last count took place, and how these trends have changed over the last 20 years.

      What we do know is that the pathways to find stable, secure, and affordable housing in Greater Vancouver are complex and limited at present—and that’s compounded by equity imbalances within our communities. The more intersectional an individual’s identity, the more systemic barriers, struggles, and discrimination they’re likely to experience, putting them at greater risk of experiencing racism, misogyny, and/or other forms of oppression.

      Homelessness isn’t about personal failure. It’s rooted in structural and systemic issues that make people of all ages vulnerable to losing their homes. We know that homelessness is a very real part of every community in B.C., even if it’s not visible. We also know it’s a social stigma that pushes many people to hide it. In fact, findings of past counts indicate that a majority of respondents reported living in the community where we connected with them—where they were experiencing their current episode of homelessness—for at least five years before becoming homeless. Homeless people aren’t strangers; they’re longtime community members. They’re our neighbours.

      As part of this year’s effort to reflect all those who are experiencing homelessness as much as we can, we will be working with peers on outreach, and holding magnet events where folks can come to complete the survey.

      To help us connect with as many people as possible, we’re also encouraging anyone experiencing homelessness—particularly those who are more likely to be underrepresented in counts, including people who are couch surfing, staying with family or friends, or live in their vehicles—to call 211 on March 8, so they can complete our survey over the phone. The survey is anonymous; no names or personal identifying information are collected.

      Consider this: there is likely homelessness hidden within your community. We invite you to hold space for compassion, respect, and support for people experiencing homelessness in your community. Supportive communities are key in the work that volunteers, peers, organizations, Indigenous groups, health authorities, and governments are doing to eradicate homelessness.

      To learn more about how you can get involved in supporting people experiencing homelessness in your community, visit

      David Wells is the vice president of academic and applied research for Vancouver Community College. He chairs the Indigenous Homelessness Steering Committee, the Indigenous community advisory board for Reaching Home.

      Lorraine Copas is the executive director for Social Planning and Research Council  (SPARC) BC and chairs the Metro Vancouver community advisory board for Reaching Home.