The number of homeless people in Vancouver has hit a new high in 2019, despite hundreds of new temporary modular housing units built in the city over the past two years and concerted efforts by city and provincial governments to reduce the number of people who sleep rough each night.
But even as he called the new homeless tally “devastating,” Mayor Kennedy Stewart said the situation would have been “so much worse” had the new modular units not been in place.
Speaking to reporters following a council meeting at which staff presented the new homeless numbers, Mr. Kennedy added city residents have also helped ease the crisis by accepting the new housing, for the most part.
“I think Vancouverites are really stepping up – there was some difficulty at the beginning, people were nervous. And now I think it’s something that when I talk to folks, they say, ‘You know, I have that in my neighbourhood and I’m really glad we’re helping out,'” he added.
Asked what it would take to reverse the rising homelessness trend, Mr. Stewart called for more federal investment, saying the city and the province are already working flat-out to tackle the issue.
While Ottawa has announced a national housing strategy and plans to invest in new social and rental housing, relatively little of that money – about $300,000 to date – has landed in Vancouver, Mr. Stewart told reporters.
“It all depends on the Prime Minister – if the Prime Minister comes through with his investments, I think we could probably see a dent," Mr. Stewart said.
In Vancouver’s Marpole neighbourhood, some residents fought a proposed modular housing project over concerns that it would result in more crime and drug use in the neighbourhood and because it would be close to schools.
Other projects have gone up with little public controversy.
But even with 606 new units in 13 buildings, the annual survey found hundreds of people without a roof over their heads.
The city on Wednesday released preliminary data from an annual “point-in-time” homeless count conducted in March. Community groups and volunteers gathered the results, which are considered to underestimate the true number of people who are homeless.
Preliminary figures show the homeless count rose by 2 per cent from 2018 to 2,223 people, made up of 614 people who said they were “unsheltered” and 1,609 who were “sheltered” – a term that takes in people who might be staying with friends or family or living in their cars.
The results underscore a continuing housing crunch in a Vancouver characterized by low rental vacancy rates and rising property values that are driving redevelopment of many older buildings, displacing some renters who then find it difficult or impossible to find homes for the same amount of monthly rent.
According to a staff presentation, a healthy vacancy rate is between 3 to 5 per cent. In Vancouver, the rate for private rental units going for less than $750 a month is zero; for those priced between $1,250 and $1,999 a month, it’s 0.8 per cent.
Mr. Stewart said he was worried about eroding affordability of single-room occupancy hotels, known as SROs, that provide hundreds of low-cost housing units in the Downtown Eastside.
About 4,000 of the city’s remaining 7,000 SRO units are owned by the province or non-profits and provide stable rents, but rents in units owned by private investors are increasing, putting a greater squeeze on low-income renters.
“It’s very nerve-racking to me that we have potentially 3,000 people at the edge of moving into homelessness because of increasing rents in the private housing stock,” Mr. Stewart said.
The city previously ordered two SRO hotels owned by Vancouver’s Sahota family, the Regent and Balmoral, closed for health and safety reasons. The two hotels provided nearly 300 rental units.
The Balmoral was ordered closed in June of 2017 and the Regent was told to shut a year later, in June of 2018. The city filed an expropriation notice for both buildings the following month.
Abi Bond, the city’s managing director for homelessness services and affordable housing, on Wednesday said that process continues.