Homelessness in Vancouver: City staff break down the numbers

City staff report that between 2010 and 2011, the overall number of homeless has decreased for the first time since counts began – a  point that’s been echoed by Mayor Gregor Robertson during his election campaign. So how did the City reduce street homelessness? City staff say  the City has worked collaboratively with BC Housing and a number of other partners to adjust social programs in ways that help reach the greatest number of people possible.  “We’ve changed the way shelters deliver services. We’ve not only increased the number of shelter beds, but we’ve also made them more low-barrier,” a staff person intimate with the program explains.

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Unlike other shelters that only open late at night and close early in the morning, “low-barrier” shelters are open 24-7. They are increasingly inclined to serve food, allow pets and even offer storage for large belongings like carts.

“This shift has meant that these types of shelters have been much more successful at bringing people inside,” said Bond.

New housing projects

Coverage of homelessness in the past couple weeks has latched onto new findings from a report filed by city staff. The report shows that to date, only four of the 14 housing projects (initiated in 2007) are complete.

In addition, only 144 of the 388 residents in these new buildings actually came straight from the street. Many of the new tenants have been transferred from other programs or facilities, and are in most cases considered “at-risk” of becoming homeless.

In response to criticism about project completion times, Bond said the buildings are opening on schedule. She said the 14 new facilities being built in cooperation with the provincial government were always intended to be staggered, with one more opening later this year and the rest to follow until 2013.

The more pressing concern for critics and taxpayers is the seemingly low number of homeless people actually making it into completed facilities. The NPA responded by blaming Vision Vancouver’s council and urging Mayor Robertson to take responsibility for the problem. Robertson expressed his surprise at these numbers, and was quick to add that the admission process is not all within his control.

“The city provided the sites on which the buildings are built, and the province largely provided the construction financing. They also worked to find housing providers who are going to operate them,” said Bond, explaining how the system is supposed to work.

Each building has a different operator, and these operators have contractual agreements with BC Housing. This means the individual operators – in conjunction with BC Housing – are the ones responsible for tenanting the building.

“What the City has done is set up an oversight committee with all of the other partners like Vancouver Coastal Health and Streetohome…to come together and talk about how the building will be opened to tenants,” said Bond.

“We’ve been trying to monitor what’s happening, to make sure that we can be accountable for that.”

In monitoring the new tenants and where they’ve come from, the City has identified three main groups getting access to new housing: the homeless; the “at-risk” (often discharged from mental health facilities or jails), and the “housed” who move from SROs or shelters that don’t provide adequate support.

The goal for 2015

Despite ongoing confusion about the increasing and decreasing homeless populations, the goal of ending street homelessness by 2015 remains fairly clear. And according to City staff like Abi Bond, there is hope for achieving it.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” she said.

“For the first time since the count began in 2002, we’ve seen a drop in homelessness overall and a significant drop in street homelessness. But we know that our work is not done. We’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing and we’ll work really hard to keep that focus on our goal.”

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