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Canada

Vancouver mayor admits city has 'some more work to do' on homelessness

When City of Vancouver volunteers arrived at the Union Gospel Mission overnight Tuesday for the annual homeless count, mission staff had a larger than usual number to add to the total.

“Last night we had 98 and we had 15 turnaways,” UGM spokesman Jeremy Hunka said Wednesday of the Downtown Eastside temporary shelter for the homeless that is full to capacity at 72 souls.

During the colder months, UGM has been regularly putting out 20 mats in its drop-in centre in addition to the 72-bed sleeping quarters. On average for the first two months of this year, they’ve been filling up and then some.

“They (staff) make space creatively,” he said. “They add a bed or two extra wherever they can.”

He said the night of the count, which Vancouver has been holding yearly since 2010 and every three years before that back to 2005, was cold and rainy, which usually pushes up demand for cots.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who 10 years ago promised to eliminate homelessness but earlier this year conceded Vancouver’s indigent will always be with us, commented on the annual count at City Hall on Wednesday.

The results will be released in June but city staff in a fall report forecast the number of homeless would likely be 2,200 this year, up from last year’s 2,138.

“We’ve got some more work to do,” said Robertson, who won’t be running in this fall’s election.

Last year’s count found that 39 per cent of homeless were Indigenous, which Robertson said is a “massive overrepresentation.” Indigenous make up under two per cent of the general population. “So that’s a huge concern for us.”

Mayor Gregor Robertson says it’s ‘a huge concern for us’ that 39 per cent of people in the city homeless count last year were Indigenous. Nick Procaylo / PNG

He said homelessness is a problem across Metro Vancouver, where some cities during the last region-wide count saw their numbers of homeless more than double, although those cities have much smaller homeless numbers, and along the West Coast. He noted the greater Seattle area has 10,000 homeless, compared to Metro Vancouver’s 3,000.

Among the city’s fixes are plans for 300 more temporary modular units, including at the next approved site at Little Mountain off Main Street, and 1,000 additional social housing units by the end of the year, the mayor said.

Hunka is not surprised as UGM has been hosting an average of 92 people a night in January, compared with 67 a night on average in January 2017.

“We’re full most nights, right to the max, and that’s extremely worrying to us that there are that many people without a home who immediately gobble up the beds we have,” he said. “It’s just really troubling.”

Bed-seekers are limited to a two-week stay once a month at UGM because the beds are intended as emergency shelter, except in extenuating circumstances and for those in the alcohol/drug recovery program.

UGM considers anyone without a permanent residence homeless, as does the city in its count. But the city further identifies the homeless into “sheltered,” those in an emergency shelter, transition house, hospital, detox facility or jail. Those living on the street, including in tents, vehicles or abandoned buildings, or on a buddy’s couch, are identified as “unsheltered.”

Of last year’s total, 537 were unsheltered, compared to 811 10 years ago. But in 2011, that number was 154. City officials estimate that this year’s count could show as many as 900 unsheltered

B.C.’s housing ministry has promised to spend $7 billion on affordable housing over the next 10 years, including 2,000 modular housing units, a spokeswoman said in an email. 

The investment would include 114,000 affordable rental units but the province has released no details.

Ottawa has pledged to spend $40 billion on its housing plan but no details have been provided.

Robertson said he hoped the new mayor would continue to build more affordable housing.

NPA Coun. Hector Bremner, who is running for mayor, wasn’t available for comment.

Green party Coun. Adrian Carr said her party will release its official stance once all candidates are named and have had input on the party platform.

But she said the condition of “deplorable” single-room occupancy suites need to be improved and more temporary modular housing built. And she said developers have to be provided tax breaks and other incentives to build affordable purpose-built rentals.

Homeless count:

Number of homeless counted in City of Vancouver’s annual count, this year on March 13-14. Results are due in June. City staff expect to count 2,200 homeless, with as many as 900 of those living on the street. 

Year: Total/Including unsheltered (living on the street, in tent, vehicle, abandoned building, couch surfing)
2017: 2,138/537
2016: 1,847/539
2015: 1,746/488
2014: 1,803/536
2013: 1,600/273
2012: 1,602/306
2011: 1,581/154
2010: 1,715/421
2008: 1,576/811
2005: 1,364/591

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