There wasn’t a lot for Robert Wilmot to be happy about when he looked at his son’s profoundly chaotic and troubled life.
But for two and a half years, he took some comfort in knowing that Rook and his wife, Claire, who have both struggled with years of mental-health problems and heavy drug use, were living indoors at one of Vancouver’s temporary modular-housing projects.
They had been on the streets for a couple of years before that, and Mr. Wilmot, a former social worker who worked for 40 years in government and non-profit social services, had worked hard to get them a place. Rook and Claire were among the first to move in to Sarah Ross House on east Vancouver’s Kaslo Street when it opened in 2018.
This was especially a relief when Claire got pregnant in 2021.
(The Globe and Mail is using Mr. Wilmot’s son’s and wife’s street names so as not to hamper future efforts at finding housing.)
But a few weeks before Claire’s January due date, the two moved out after receiving eviction notices from Sarah Ross, which is managed by Atira Women’s Resources Society and is the lowest-barrier kind of housing Vancouver has. They hadn’t paid rent for months, they were hoarders and, on Jan. 2, they set fire to their room and turned it into an uninhabitable, smouldering mess.
Since then, their lives have returned to homeless turmoil.
Mr. Wilmot said there’s no doubt the couple were extremely difficult to help. But he expected that an organization such as Atira, the province’s largest non-profit housing provider whose main focus is providing homes to B.C.’s hardest to house, would figure out how to deal with common problems like non-payment of rent, hoarding and even setting fires.
“An eight-month-pregnant woman and her husband were evicted and placed at risk,” he said. “Why did Atira allow this?”
As the City of Vancouver once again stumbles in dealing with homeless encampments, the story of Mr. Wilmot’s son and his wife illustrates one of the failures of the current system. Policy-makers and housing providers are grappling with an increasingly troubled segment among those who are homeless.
British Columbia’s supportive-housing system, which can provide extra help such as health care and food in addition to shelter, is supposed to prevent people from getting entrenched into a cycle of homelessness. It’s a huge challenge, especially as psychosis-inducing drugs, brain damage caused by repeated drug poisonings, more severe mental illnesses and other factors produce a new generation of severely dysfunctional and low-income people.
And under current systems, it means those with the worst problems end up back on the street, evicted or pressed to leave by housing organizations that have run out of solutions for them.
That will keep happening if governments don’t re-examine what they’re doing, says the head of Canada’s main organization tackling homelessness.
Instead of just emphasizing how many units they are building or acquiring, government policy-makers need to have a laser focus on the small but growing minority like Rook and Claire, who are deeply entrenched in homelessness, addiction and mental illness, says Tim Richter, chief executive of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.
Data from BC Housing, requested by The Globe and Mail, shows there is a relatively high rate of churn in the province’s supportive-housing apartments, indicating some level of failure at keeping people housed.
BC Housing said 85 per cent of all people in the province’s 7,074 supportive housing units had remained housed for the year prior to June 30, 2022.
But in another set of data, the agency spelled out that almost 1,800 people left the province’s then-occupied 6,900 supportive-housing apartments in the 20 months from April 1, 2019, to Dec. 31, 2020 – a quarter of everyone in that system. About 200 of those departures were deaths. The rest were evictions (354), abandonments (114), tenants giving notice (422) and “other” (655). That data gives no indication whether tenants were moving on to better housing.
Some of these people end up in camps, such as the tents strung along Vancouver’s Hastings Street on the Downtown Eastside or at CRAB Park along Vancouver’s waterfront, or in the bush in Surrey or Abbotsford, B.C., or on their own in parking garages and under bridges.
When the camps burgeon to 200 or 400 tents, the city and province promise to clear them by finding housing for everyone. They do it by buying hotels or allowing people in the camps to jump the waiting lists to get into available social-housing units. Everything settles for a few weeks, and then it all starts again.
Non-profit housing managers from the major agencies including Atira, PHS Community Services Society and RainCity Housing and Support Society, say they routinely move some tenants among buildings to see if they’ll do better elsewhere. Those prone to setting fires get put into concrete apartments, while housing managers work to keep hoarding to a minimum. People serving a jail term will have their rooms held for them in some organizations.
Evictions happen only in extreme cases, the agencies say. Tenants are evicted because they’ve been violent with staff or other residents. Police may issue a “no-go” order for the building their room was in. Some have previous criminal records that indicate a pattern of threats.
But providers say it’s getting harder and harder to manage the increasingly complex problems of their tenants. “We used to really aim for a zero-eviction policy,” says Tanya Fader, director of housing at PHS. “That’s not always possible.”
A search of court records shows that, among the four largest non-profit housing providers in British Columbia, Atira Property Management and Atira Women’s Resources Society initiated 43 evictions between January, 2020, and Aug. 15 among 1,145 apartments. Lookout Housing and Health Society, which manages 1,750 low-barrier apartments and shelter spaces, initiated 11. PHS, which has 1,500 low-barrier apartments, had three. RainCity, which has 1,200 people in transitional and long-term housing, started two. Those numbers do not indicate how many residents might have been asked to leave without a formal eviction.
Mr. Richter, of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, has worked on housing solutions for more than two decades, starting in Calgary. Governments in recent years have often focused on simply churning out units to demonstrate they’re tackling homelessness. But that’s not going to do it, he says.
“We tend to invest affordable-housing dollars a mile wide and an inch deep,” he says. “Because you spread it too thin, you don’t get the results you want.”
He says many people trying to eradicate homelessness don’t understand that, given finite government resources, not everyone who ends up in a shelter needs a subsidized apartment with supports. (Like everyone in the housing field, though, he says there needs to be a system of subsidized apartments for low-income people in tight markets because private builders are simply not able to construct anything affordable for that group.)
“The vast majority of people in housing-need and homelessness – three-quarters to 80 per cent – most of it is just about income. They are in and out in days or weeks.”
With the system unable to keep the most difficult people housed, the kind of homelessness now visible in many cities will persist, no matter how many subsidized apartments a government builds.
Where government help needs to be intensely focused is on the 20 per cent to 25 per cent who get stuck in a cycle of homelessness, Mr. Richter says, because that group is dealing with multiple challenges.
If that group gets intense resources, not just housing, ideally about 85 per cent of them should still be in their housing a year later – that’s considered the gold standard of success and it’s what was achieved when the federal government funded a special pilot in the early 2000s called At Home/Chez Soi. (That $110-million project took place in five cities, including Vancouver and Toronto, and lasted four years.)
Many of the region’s supportive-housing projects, the quieter ones that receive little public or media attention, achieve that. A study of the Sanford Apartments on Burrard Slopes, a building run by MPA Society, found that 89 per cent of the tenants placed there in July, 2012, were still there a year later, even though 23 of the 62 residents had been homeless before getting a studio apartment there. (Some of the extra assistance Sanford has provided includes mental-health treatment services, advocacy and crisis prevention.)
At Atira’s Sarah Ross and six other temporary-modular housing projects, an early report from BC Housing indicated 94 per cent of tenants in the seven facilities collectively were still living in the apartments they had received a year before. But updated numbers that Atira chief executive Janice Abbott provided to The Globe indicate that only 33 of the 52 tenants who first moved into Sarah Ross are still there.
Six were evicted – five for violent incidents, one for failure to pay rent. Another 21 signed agreements to leave voluntarily, some because of assaults on others in the building or police no-go orders, and some because of their hoarding, fire-setting or general property destruction. Four, including some who had set fires or had a hoarding problem, got a “clean start” in other Atira housing.
Ms. Abbott agrees the problems are getting worse and there are people being placed in supportive housing who are beyond the ability of those housing providers to stabilize, under the current system.
In the months since his son and daughter-in-law were evicted, Mr. Wilmot has only heard sporadically from them. They were living in a parking garage in Surrey, B.C., for a while. Claire got hit by a car at one point when she was panhandling. They had their cellphones stolen. They showed up at Sarah Ross recently out of the blue and got a meal, then disappeared again.
The granddaughter born in January was apprehended instantly and put into foster care, as happened with the couple’s three previous children.
Mr. Wilmot and his wife get to see their new granddaughter a couple of times a week, when the foster mother living nearby brings her over. They go for walks with her in local parks in North Vancouver, and visit their three other grandchildren, one of them 3, the two others teenagers, as often as they can.
In the meantime, Mr. Wilmot hangs on to the photo of them that Claire’s mother took last Christmas, showing an attractive couple – Rook with a beard and baseball cap that give him the look of a well-off tradesman, and Claire, with long dark hair, hugging her husband.
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