Despite tens of millions in federal and provincial funding spent to combat a severe housing crisis in the Vancouver area over the past three years, the latest numbers show that 1,200 more people were identified as homeless during this year’s point-in-time count, the largest jump since homeless counts started in B.C. in 2005.
The homeless count in the Lower Mainland revealed a 32-per-cent increase since 2020 to almost 5,000 people living on the streets, in shelters, in vehicles or in other precarious spots. And the problem has spread dramatically into Vancouver’s suburbs, where some communities are seeing a near doubling of their numbers.
David Wells, a spokesperson for Homeless Services Association of B.C., which conducted the count, said some of those communities are ill-equipped to help this new unhoused population.
“We’re seeing a dispersion into outlying communities. And we’re seeing folks locating away from the urban centres. They’re into areas people hadn’t thought of before, areas we just hadn’t seen in the past,” said Mr. Wells, who is also a vice-president at Vancouver Community College.
“And the top five were communities that each have less than 100 shelter beds in their system.”
In spite of that, mayors and council members from the areas seeing the biggest increases said their commitment to putting more resources into combatting homelessness is increasing and they called on federal and provincial governments to do even more.
The City of Vancouver, which has well over half of the region’s shelter beds, saw a relatively low increase of 16 per cent of unhoused people, although it was high in absolute numbers.
But Richmond, Burnaby, Surrey, the Tri-Cities and New Westminster saw increases of between 65 per cent and 91 per cent in their counts.
“It’s upsetting for sure, but I’m not surprised,” said Mayor Brenda Locke of Surrey, where the count of homeless people increased by 65 per cent to 1,060.
Research shows that in any year, the number of people who are homeless is five or six times higher than what shows in point-in-time counts, as people fall into and out of homelessness.
The recent count found that more young people and seniors are showing up as homeless.
Ms. Locke, who said her city has well over 100 shelter beds, still expressed concern that cities such as Surrey don’t get the same kind of provincial or federal government investment in shelters and low-cost housing as Vancouver.
“In lots of cities, we have to stick up our hand and say we need more supports.”
She and council members of many other suburban cities said they are doing the maximum they can to try to provide new housing and supports to help prevent homelessness, as well as helping those who do lose their homes with paths back to living somewhere permanent.
Ms. Locke said Surrey is setting up a new homelessness-prevention plan that will be put in place in 2024.
In New Westminster, Councillor Nadine Nakagawa said the city is approving any housing that comes forward, with three affordable housing projects okayed for a single street in that city. As well, it has set up the province’s first peer-assisted care team to engage with people who are homeless or at risk.
But, like Ms. Locke, she said provincial and federal governments need to do even more than they have recently.
Ms. Nakagawa is worried that news about increases in homelessness may exacerbate what is already a political divide over the issue. While some will say the increase means more should be invested, there are others who are turning to solutions such as encampment sweeps and forced institutionalization because they see the problem as intractable.
“Unfortunately, some look for simplistic solutions that tap into people’s fears,” she said.
Homelessness has increased in Canada generally since the pandemic started and as housing costs have continued to soar.
A preliminary report by Infrastructure Canada that looked at the change in numbers of homeless people in 55 cities between March, 2020, and December, 2022, found there was about a 12-per-cent increase.
Higher numbers at various cities across the country are generally correlating with the level of rent increases in that region, said Tim Richter, chief executive of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. That means that about 300,000 people are now experiencing homelessness at some point in a given year, he said.
“What you’re seeing in Vancouver, it’s happening across the country,” Mr. Richter said. “There’s a loss of housing happening today that is higher than our largest natural disasters.”