Opinion: Vancouver is Canada's dumping ground for the homeless, and this needs to stop

Sep 9 2020, 6:31 pm

While the precarious nature of housing affordability in Metro Vancouver has long taken the heat for Vancouver’s dire homelessness issues, this is far beyond from being just a homegrown issue as the factor of provincial and interprovincial migration to the South Coast has been grossly understated.

Statistics do not lie, with annual homeless counts showing a continuing trend that places an overwhelmingly disproportionate burden on British Columbia’s major cities, especially the City of Vancouver.

In the City of Vancouver’s 2019 homeless count, based on those who responded, 16% (156 people) of the homeless reported they were from an area elsewhere in Metro Vancouver, while 31% (299 people) were from another area of BC, and 44% (435 people) from another area of Canada.

There were similar proportions in the municipal government’s 2017 count, with 15% (166 people) from elsewhere in Metro Vancouver, 27% (288 people) from the rest of BC, and 48% (515 people) from the rest of Canada.

In 2016, Vancouver’s count of homeless individuals who have been in the city for less than a month recorded 16% of the new arrivals from elsewhere in Metro Vancouver, 28% from the rest of BC, 22% from Alberta, 8% from Saskatchewan, 5% from Ontario, and 4% from Quebec.

And in 2015, the municipal government’s count on new arrivals for under one month saw 20% from Metro Vancouver’s suburban cities, 22% from other areas of BC, 24% from Ontario, and 14% from Alberta.

These migration patterns were also seen in the 2017 regional homeless count supported by Metro Vancouver Regional District. Of the 22% (496 people) who had moved into a new community in Metro Vancouver within the past year, 30% (142 people) had moved from within the region, 23% (107 people) from the rest of BC, 33% (155 people) from the rest of Canada, and 4% (21 people) from the Fraser Valley.

There is also a disproportionately high Indigenous homeless population in the city. Based on Vancouver’s preliminary results for the 2020 count, 33% (711 people) of the local homeless population identifies as Indigenous, despite accounting for 2% of the entire region’s general population.

Youth homelessness is on the rise as well. A 2018 regional count of youth homelessness found that 37% previously lived in another area of Metro Vancouver, 26% from the rest of Canada, 24% from the rest of BC, and 5% from the Fraser Valley.

2019 data provided by Covenant House, which offers services and shelter for at-risk youth in Vancouver, indicates 49% of their new youth were from BC, but 23% were from other provinces. Another 22% were of an unknown origin.

Union Gospel Mission in the Downtown Eastside says they do not record information on their shelter guests, but in 2015/16 there was a 50% increase in the number of individuals from Alberta over the summer following the collapse of the province’s oil industry. The provincial government at the time also indicated it was seeing a significant wave of migration from unemployed Albertans looking for new economic opportunities.

These statistics are absolutely paramount for our understanding on the broader roots of local homelessness, rather than merely the common discourse on stopping symptoms that are visually apparent in Vancouver’s streets and parks today.

There is no denying that Vancouver, specifically the Downtown Eastside and its peripheral areas of Gastown, Chinatown, and Strathcona, is Canada’s epicentre for homelessness, mental health, and opioid issues.

One of the most obvious relevant factors for westward migration is, of course, climate. Vancouver and Victoria are the mildest locations in Canada, year-round — a sharp contrast to the bitterly cold winters of most other areas of the country, including all of the major population centres.

“The weather is better on the West Coast. The highest concentrations of homeless people in North American countries are in the warmer parts, so that’s Vancouver, Victoria, and Southern California,” said Julian Somers, a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, in an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized.

He leads the university’s Somers Research Group, which has performed extensive research on homelessness, mental illness, addiction, and crime.

While the weather is nicer in Vancouver, he says, the situation for these individuals is not any better. He says people are often moving to avoid problems locally or seek some place better, but they do not find it.

In fact, based on the evidence from his research, when people come to Vancouver they get worse. They are more likely to engage in criminal activity, spend more time in corrections and hospitals, and remain homeless and unwell.

“The services that are available in Vancouver are not effective, generally. I believe there is evidence that people move partly to find better services. But people who try that and move to Vancouver find that things here are not better,” said Somers.

“We’ve looked at people, different Canadians… [and] for example, people in Vancouver are not more likely to receive certain types of assistance they need than those in Montreal.”

He says it is clear that there is a migration pattern towards Vancouver and Victoria, and to halt this pattern policymakers need to use the information that is readily available to identify where people are in need of assistance, and allocate that assistance to where they are so that they can remain in their communities, whether it be in Surrey or Halifax.

Over on Vancouver Island, there is new anecdotal evidence that homeless from other parts of the province and country are moving to Victoria. Last month, Victoria police chief Del Manak said his officers have been telling him daily that they are seeing new people on the streets. When engaged in discussions with these individuals, they say they are from as far away as Ontario and Nova Scotia, and they are coming to BC after hearing that they would be offered support and a free place to stay. Some are even using their CERB money for their travel costs to the West Coast.

“We clearly need to be implementing effective strategies that have shown to work. The evidence is quite clear,” said Somers.

“We need to not only look at the urban areas where visible homelessness is obvious, but we also need to use the information that is available to track where there is evidence of need outside of our urban settings, before the problems become more serious, and allocate similar types of approaches to areas in other parts of the country where there is an evidence of need.”

But until there is a comprehensive approach to identifying and tackling these issues elsewhere at their root of origin, says Somers, we will continue to see the same dynamic cycle of people being unsupported, entering into crisis, feeling compelled to move, and continuing to fail to get better.

This is certainly not a call for BC and its communities to reject people who want to move here and receive help, but it paints a picture that this is highly unsustainable, especially with the escalating crisis, nor does it lead to the desired outcome of improving and saving lives.

In essence, the BC government needs to drastically increase its resources in other parts of the province where there is need, before it spills over and adds to the growth of the already high concentration of homelessness in Vancouver.

Other municipal governments within Metro Vancouver must step up, and allow programs and services that address the needs of their most vulnerable residents, instead of continuing to depend on the City of Vancouver to solely bear the region’s responsibility of offering services to the homeless.

And the City of Vancouver needs to stop its approach over the past decade of completely taking over what is fundamentally a provincial and federal responsibility, which has contributed to the concentration in the Downtown Eastside. Building housing and providing healthcare are the responsibilities of senior governments; the origins and intense gravity of the situation within the city is completely out of the scope of the municipal government.

Vancouver lacks the fiscal muscle of Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary; although Vancouver is the core city in one of Canada’s four largest urban regions, based on population, it is also proportionally the smallest of the core cities.

The regional burden that Vancouver taxpayers face is highly disproportionate, let alone the added burden of a sizeable share of BC and the country’s homelessness.

Other provincial governments in the country also need to work with their municipal governments to do their part with providing the housing and healthcare their vulnerable residents require.

Provincial governments have, on occasion, been caught doing the complete opposite by shuffling their homeless around to another jurisdiction beyond their purview.

Alberta under the leadership of former Premier Ralph Klein gained added notoriety in BC for offering one-way bus tickets for welfare recipients to travel to the West Coast and remain there. More recently in 2016, there was controversy after Saskatchewan provided two individuals with one-way bus tickets to BC, after they applied for shelter bed spots in their community. It is impossible to determine the extent of this practice, given that it is typically informal.

Then there is the federal government’s duty of supporting municipal and provincial governments that are in need. As the national epicentre of homelessness, there is an urgent need for the federal government to provide a scale of support that reflects the convergence of the national homelessness crisis on Vancouver.

Last week, it was revealed that BC has only received 0.5% of the funding from the federal government’s 2017-initiated National Housing Co-investment Fund (NHCF) under the National Housing Strategy. Just $7.4 million has been allocated to BC to help fund two new projects creating 66 units.

Contrast this with what the City of Toronto has received: Nearly all of the funding — $1.34 billion out of the awarded $1.47 billion to date — has been directed to a single application from Toronto Community Housing, an entity of the municipal government, for the repair and renewal of 58,861 existing units. Over 50% of the project funding agreements were also made in Ontario.

“It’s infuriating and shocking that the federal government would just turn a blind eye to the crisis that we have in BC,” Jenny Kwan, the NDP MP for the riding of Vancouver East, told Daily Hive Urbanized. Her riding covers the neighbourhoods of the Downtown Eastside, Strathcona, Hastings-Sunrise, Grandview-Woodland, and Mount Pleasant.

She notes Toronto also happens to be the ridings for the Minister and Parliamentary Secretary of Families, Children, and Social Development, which is the federal ministry that handles housing.

“There is a complete disconnect with the reality of what’s going on in the hearts and minds of Ottawa, versus the reality Vancouver faces. In the meantime, while the money is not flowing, we’re seeing our homelessness crisis escalate to this situation,” she said.

Kwan says the current housing crisis is a snowballing of decades of federal neglect on the country’s social housing needs, especially after the Liberal government’s decision in the middle of the 1990s that ended the federal social housing program, effectively accelerating the decline.

The cuts first began with the Conservative government of the 1980s, with the number of federally funded units dropping from about 20,000 units in 1987 to less than 7,000 in 1993, when the Liberal party regained its governing status.

Cuts as early as the 1970s were also made to federal tax incentives that supported purpose-built private rental housing.

When the federal government made the 1993 decision to cancel all subsidies for new social housing projects, the provincial governments followed, even though federal leaders had intended for this responsibility to be downloaded to this lower level of senior government.

If the federal government had continued their program, she says, it is estimated over 500,000 units of affordable housing would have been built across the country over the two-and-a-half decades that followed.

Only BC and Quebec continued to build social housing. All of the other provinces stopped.

BC began its own social housing program with a baseline of 600 new units every year, until the change of governing party in 2001.

“We have gone through a cycle through different periods of time when people migrate to BC, in part due to our climate that is more susceptible for people who are homeless, and perhaps because other provinces aren’t doing as much as we are,” said Kwan. “After the federal government stopped their program, they also stopped and pretended it’s not an issue for them to deal with, but we weren’t one of those provinces.”

“All of this has accumulated in British Columbia, and especially in Vancouver East.”

Currently, the BC government is asking for the federal government to engage in a 50-50 cost share agreement to fulfill the emergency housing needs arising in Vancouver, Victoria, and other communities as a result of the economic conditions of COVID-19. But Kwan says the federal government has not shown any interest so far.

“The numbers are so skewed against British Columbia in terms of action,” she added.

Based on studies on migration patterns from the Great Depression and recessions, we know that greater numbers of people move to larger urban areas, where there are generally more employment opportunities. We saw this four to five years ago when large numbers of Albertans moved to BC to escape their home province’s severe recession. Prior to the pandemic, there were signs of a gradual rebound in Alberta, but ultra low oil prices are forecast for the foreseeable future, until the global economy and transportation demand rebound.

We also know that youth and young adults, who take on many lower-income service jobs, are disproportionately impacted by the current economic crisis. They fill a large proportion of the positions in retail, restaurants, nightlife, hotels, and tourism-related services, but many more of these businesses face grave uncertainty as summer transitions into fall. For the same reasons, statistics also show women are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Kristy Hayter with Covenant House says based on their organization’s experience, youth homelessness often results from a pursuit to seek out a fresh start, when they are looking to make changes in their lives and this can include moving to a new city or province.

BC had some of the strongest job opportunities for youth in recent years, before the pandemic, and coupled with the mild climate it can be an area young people choose, she says.

“One of the challenges youth can face upon moving here can be the high cost of living, and if they are not able to find an affordable place and a job quickly it can lead to them experiencing homelessness,” said Hayter.

Without a new and unprecedented level of support from the provincial government and especially the federal government, homelessness and the affiliated social issues in Vancouver that are in plain view today will almost certainly escalate to new proportions this winter, beyond what has been seen this summer.

Over the short term, a realignment of federal policies and priorities is necessary to address the expected worsening symptoms of the crisis amidst the continuing pandemic. This will help address both homegrown issues as a result of the high cost of living, and the heightened level of provincial and interprovincial migration to Vancouver.

The need in Vancouver is painfully clear.

But over the medium- and longer-term, there is a need for a paradigm shift in how the federal government allocates its resources for housing and the associated social programs across the country.

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